Horsedreams, a new play by Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith, is a wordy dive into the collateral damage of addiction. When his wife dies of an accidental overdose, Loman is left reeling and raising a young son alone. The family unravels as he struggles to pick up the pieces.
The play’s split-screen scenes, frequent dips in and out of real-time, montages, and soliloquies often confound director Gordon Edelstein. What we see isn’t quite in line with what the words tell us to see. Horsedreams lags along at about the same pace until snapping out of it for a precious moment. So much of the action occurs in expository narration or in dialogue after the fact, and when something does happen onstage, the impact is undermined by its randomness. Horsedreams is rife with dramatic fodder, so it’s a pity that a loaded script translates into a fundamentally uninteresting production.
Thank goodness, then, that the playwright is featured in the company. Dael Orlandersmith renders a grounded, no-nonsense performance as Mira, the semi-reluctant but constant caretaker. Horsedreams may not have a central protagonist, but Mira is a solid presence. She knows what this family is going through, because she’s been there. And because of that, she can guess where it’s headed. Her delivery makes the dialogue seem natural, and she has the ability to show us a moment of vulnerability without completely derailing her trajectory.
The other actors lack Ms. Orlandersmith’s conviction and sense of rhythm. That they do not have the same relationship to the work isn’t a great excuse. Roxanna Hope, Michael Laurence, and Matthew Schechter stand with Orlandersmith, acting on the same stage, but they might as well be in different plays for all of the connection they have to one another.
This is painfully obvious in the opening scene, a strung-out, choppy account of Desiree and Loman’s courtship and marriage in each’s own words. Here we become acquainted with the conceit that characters will often speak to the audience but seldom to each other (except to yell). Hope (Desiree) and Laurence (Loman) are burdened with lengthy speeches that threaten to upstage them; neither seems to be able to get a firm grip on their characters’ early ups-and-downs (both emotional and chemical). Their connection feels forced, and we aren’t given enough chances to see the love that haunts Loman for the rest of the play.
The more Loman’s life falls apart, the better Laurence becomes. With the exposition out of the way, he has the freedom to explore Loman’s journey from workaholic single dad to coked-out counsellor to full-blown junkie. Everyone’s always looking, he says. Everyone watches him, few more than his son Luka, the preternaturally aware 10 year-old whose love for horses provides opportunities for verbal montages about riding a horse versus riding a high. Matthew Schechter has the poise to handle portraying one of the few characters onstage that acts like an adult. He loses hope in Loman, who only seems to notice the staring. For all of the talking Loman does about people looking at him in judgement, he gleans little to no real self-awareness from the discomfort.
That disconnect forms the basis for Horsedreams‘ essential tragedy: a kind of superficial self-awareness. Loman, like Desiree before him, has no real desire to solve his problems. They talk and talk but never do anything except for mask old habits with new ones. Addiction is an old fight, and a mean one, but Horsedreams sort of stops there. The closest it comes to adding something new to the discussion is a moment of rebellion that comes near play’s end. Though slightly unbelievable (okay, maybe nothing is so unbelievable anymore), we finally wonder past the page and into these characters’ futures. Will they heal themselves, or as Luka puts it bluntly, is it “over?” Reserve your hope for them, and maybe set some aside for Horsedreams.