- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

In the pantheon of odd parents, Lily’s (Tessa Klein) caregivers are kookier than most. The child, orphaned after her exuberant young mother Rosie (Becky Peters) dies of cancer, is raised in a Bronx apartment by two eccentric bachelor uncles, Gabe (David Elias), an orthodox Jew who left his heart in Tin Pan Alley, and Len (Paul Morella), a mysterious fellow in a trench coat who is forever disappearing on secret missions and carries all his worldly possessions in a single manila envelope.

Len makes Jiffy Pops for breakfast while wearing a pith helmet and Gabe composes a new form of music, a fusion of black gospel and traditional Jewish melodies, forged, he believes, from a shared history of slavery.

They allow her to paint the apartment in stripes the color of Creamsicles and come home from school for lunch and never return to class. You might think a semblance of normalcy might be established with the arrival of the grandmother, Etka from Minsk (Halo Wines), but she’s a histrionic nutter in her own right, a self-made member of the intelligentsia who pines for the days of Turgenev.

With an upbringing like that, you end up either a writer or Hannibal Lecter’s comrade in arms. Laura Shaine Cunningham, on whose quirky memoir the world premiere production “Sleeping Arrangements” is based, chose the former and our literary lives are wealthier for it. As a staged work, however, “Sleeping Arrangements” is a scattershot and unsettled memory play.

While Miss Cunningham has a way with the quick quip, a coping mechanism that must have been a godsend in her childhood, the pert, straightforward comedy of the one-liners is at odds with the dreamlike, impressionistic structure of the piece.

The free-form composition of “Sleeping Arrangements” may be a way of capturing Lily’s equally amorphous upbringing, where disputes are solved by mock trials with a kitchen mallet serving as a gavel and no one raises an eyebrow over Len’s bid for presidency on the depression and anxiety ticket because, he says, “the nation needs a president who feels bad.” But there is no internal logic at work as the early scenes, especially the depiction of Lily’s equally offbeat childhood friends — the sex-obsessed Susan (Lindsay Haynes) and the kleptomaniac Diana (Tiffany Fillmore, who exposes herself to child predators for pocket change) — languidly unfold. In the second half, everything cranks up to a manic pace when Miss Cunningham races to cram a jumble of memories into the final hour.

Eccentric schmaltz is the rule of the day in “Sleeping Arrangements,” which falls over itself trying to reassure the audience that Lily’s makeshift, nontraditional family was strange but loving. That message is pounded home from the first moment we lay eyes on Rosie, a single mother and free spirit in the buttoned-up 1950s, to the slightly disturbing behavior of Etka, who ricochets between maternal and monstrous.

The accomplished ensemble cast is rendered uncertain by the sketchy quality of the script and compensate by broad overacting. The usually astute Miss Wines schlocks it up to an almost embarrassing degree, as does Susan Moses as a stereotypical yenta neighbor.

Cam Magee has a moment of comic dignity as the socialist director of a summer camp, and Miss Klein and Miss Peters bring a shared sense of resilience and hard-won optimism to the roles of Lily and Rosie.

Very little of Miss Cunningham’s beautifully written, warmly shocking memoir — where heartbreak and hilarity slap up against each other in equal doses — is translated to the stage in director Delia Taylor’s production, which never recovers from problems in pacing and tone. This is one work that plays far better on the page than the stage.

**

WHAT: “Sleeping Arrangements” by Laura Shaine Cunningham

WHERE: Washington DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m., Saturdays; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 18.

TICKETS: $15 to $45

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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