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Theater review: 'Awake in a World That Encourages Sleep' at the Electric Lodge

January 12, 2012 | 10:00 am

Raymond J. Barry’s new play “Awake in a World That Encourages Sleep”
For a minute I feared that Raymond J. Barry’s new play “Awake in a World That Encourages Sleep” would put me to sleep — right on one of the shoulders so conveniently rubbing mine at Venice’s Electric Lodge.

Barry, a published playwright, is also the kind of actor (most recently seen as Arlo in TV's “Justified”) who would have to work not to be entertaining. But in the program he writes that his play is about the “exploitation of economically weak countries by giant corporations,” as described in John Perkins’ “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.” 

And on the page, “Awake…” may well resemble a leaflet thrust at you on Hollywood Boulevard: hysterical, vague and unlikely to have any effect on the phenomena it decries. Anyway, don’t corporate power mongers program their GPS devices to avoid the (renewable energy-powered) Electric Lodge? Even if some malfunction landed them there, the artistic director’s preshow lecture on solar power would scare them off. The ones left are the choir, and what can we do about anything?

But on the stage, “Awake,” starring Barry with Joseph Culp (Don Draper’s surly father in those stylish “Mad Men” flashbacks) and the lovely Tacey Adams, is a masterpiece of comic ensemble acting, a true triumph of style over substance. 

In a park — two benches and a tree, painted white — a married couple (Culp and Adams) encounter a man (Barry) who, as in so much contemporary drama, doesn’t respect personal boundaries. This is Albee country, and the threesome’s behavior is absurd. But these actors are so stylish and proficient that you don’t care what they’ll say next — you just can’t wait for them to say it. 

They touch up their makeup while threatening murder. Kiss meltingly during vicious arguments. Exchange long stares and sinister smiles. Their physical comedy has the leisurely confidence of vaudeville, but the dialogue clips by at a startling pace, and sometimes all three rattle on simultaneously without missing a beat; only the audience is winded from laughing.

Barry puts on an exceptionally antic disposition. His very walk is so silly that it makes Monty Python’s whole ministry look serious. Two young women in the audience kept asking each other, with affectionate disbelief, “What is he doing?” I wondered if they were his daughters, and that made me see him as a dad generously clowning for his kids at bedtime. He and his costars could probably recite the phone book and leave us wide awake and begging for more.

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-- Margaret Gray

“Awake in a World That Encourages Sleep,” the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $25. Ends Feb. 26. www.brownpapertickets.com/event/210533. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. 

Photo: Tacey Adams, Joseph Culp, center, and Raymond J. Barry in “Awake in a World that Encourages Sleep.” Credit: Lee Wexler.

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