- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Enter the world of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s play “The Velvet Sky” — if you dare. This creepy, mesmeric play, directed with a delectable sense of the macabre by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, makes a malevolent figure out of the comforting bedtime-story character of the Sandman. Here, the creature is not sprinkling sleepy dust into the eyes of children but is preying on their fears and vulnerabilities.

If you are prone to bad dreams, “The Velvet Sky” may give you a sleepless night or two because of its nightmarish atmosphere and also because the Sandman’s victim is a 12-year-old boy. In Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa’s fevered brain, the Sandman is a symbol for adults who do nasty things in the dark when they are supposed to be shielding the young.

Andrew Palmer (Matthew Stadelmann) is an overprotected, peculiar child on the cusp of his 13th birthday. His unhinged mother, Bethany (Jeanine Serralles), hovers over him, convinced that the reason he didn’t die of a serious disease in infancy was because she sat up all night watching over him. So, Bethany hasn’t slept for 13 years. She stays awake knitting ugly sweaters like a demented Madame De Farge, keeping the Sandman (Rick Foucheux) away from her child.

Bethany’s husband, Warren (Will Gartshore), is fed up with his wife’s obsessions and runs off to New York with Andrew in the middle of the night. Andrew escapes from his father, intent on exploring Manhattan on his own.

Other than a trip to the American Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaurs, Andrew’s to-do list is not that of an average kid. It includes an NC-17-rated movie in a seedy theater, going clubbing, and visiting the men’s room at the Port Authority bus terminal. Everywhere Andrew visits, predatory older men (all played with shivery wickedness by Mr. Foucheux) hit on him.

Bethany, clad in pajamas and trailing yarn, overcomes her neuroses to follow them, figuring out Andrew’s whereabouts through storybooks about New York she used to read to him before bedtime. Either chronic sleeplessness or paranormal forces cause her to hallucinate about the Sandman, who is trying to snatch Andrew’s eyes with the help of a scary bird with a snapping beak (a puppet operated by a puppeteer completely clad in black).

The evocation of a nightmarish state is one of the more compelling aspects of this production, a grandly delusional and paranoid dreamscape made up of shadowy figures, disembodied voices, giant claws scuttling across the stage, and the eerie, constant presence of the Sandman and his avian henchman. An atmosphere this discomfiting and strange does not need the addition of a late-breaking child abuse subplot, which makes watching the play almost unbearable.

More problematic is the figure of the Sandman. Is he real or the embodiment of Bethany’s deepest anxieties about her child and her failure to fully protect him? Given Miss Serralles’ hysterical, nerve-shattering performance as Bethany, it would seem that he is a hallucination. But then, why is he visible to Andrew, who is pursued by him in various guises all over New York?

The mingling of the real and the supernatural is a troubled pairing in “The Velvet Sky,” with Bethany’s child-raising angst too vivid and grasping to meld evenly with the idea of a comic-book world populated with otherworldly creatures. The two worlds collide, but they don’t mesh.

“The Velvet Sky” tells us that no matter what we do, children are never safe. Something — or someone — is always lurking in the shadows, waiting to steal their precious innocence.

WHAT: “The Velvet Sky” by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 5.

TICKETS: $30 to $48

PHONE: 202/393-3939

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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