Matthew Schechter, Michael Laurence, and
Dael Orlandersmith in Horsedreams
(© Sandra Coudert)
Matthew Schechter, Michael Laurence, and
Dael Orlandersmith in Horsedreams
(© Sandra Coudert)
Dael Orlandersmith is a highly acclaimed playwright, but it's her breathtaking command of the stage as the star of her own works, many of which are solo shows, that often most impresses. For her latest piece, Horsedreams, which has its world premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Orlandersmith shares the stage with three other fine actors, but the piece comes most alive when she's alone in the spotlight.

The work tells a somber tale of cocaine and heroin addiction and its destructive effects on a young, wealthy but unhappy white family in New York (a fate hauntingly captured by the cracks and shards of Takeshi Kata's beautiful, minimalist set design).

Orlandersmith plays Mira, a black Harlem woman trying to pay her way through nursing school by taking on a job caring for Luka (Matthew Schechter), the 10-year-old son of Loman (Michael Laurence) and Desiree (the excellent Roxanna Hope). Pay attention to those character names, by the way. As with the title of the play, they're evocative and often ironic comments on the dynamic human beings that Orlandersmith has created.

As riveting as it is, Horsedreams does not, unfortunately, offer startling, new insights into the work's overly familiar central conflict. As a result, the piece does veer a bit too far into the arena of an old-fashioned problem play. Blatantly racist comments from Loman and Desiree occasionally come across as a contrived narrative device, while certain plot points are a bit too easily anticipated.

Director Gordon Edelstein draws fine work out of Orlandersmith's fellow actors, particularly Hope, whose mercurial Desiree can go from hot to cold in a heartbeat, sometimes with funny results (as in her description of the night she meets Loman), sometimes decidedly not so comic. Laurence is more predictable, but still moving as the hapless Loman, who feels love-struck for his wife but, if you listen for the clues, doesn't really see her.

Schechter does admirable work in an unusually challenging role for a child actor. Luka is written as a precocious ten-year-old, sometimes unbelievably so, and Edelstein pushes Schechter too hard to demonstrate that fact with certain gestures and head movements that cause him to come across less as a little boy heartbreakingly wiser than his years and more of a mouthpiece for an older character.

What grounds the production, though, is Orlandersmith. Although she tripped on a few lines of her dialogue the night I saw the show, she gives a spare but stirring performance that draws you in and makes you care for Mira long after the final curtain.