The publicity material for the West Coast premiere of Awake in a World That Encourages Sleep, opening Saturday at Electric Lodge, describes it as “a dark comedy that explores the ever growing imbalance between the rich and poor, the complex issues of war, corporate greed and power. Though written well before the “˜Occupy’ movement, it delves into those same issues that have become the driving force behind these protests.”
How can such a massive agenda can be realized within a three-character one-act?
Playwright/director Raymond J. Barry, who is also a veteran actor and one of the cast members, chuckles at the question, then answers it. “This is a large idea play, actually a series of large ideas. They are welded together by a love triumvirate between two men and a woman.Â One of the men is married to the woman, and the other man is attracted to the woman and vice versa.Â So the play is fused together with the glue of romance and jealousy, with a political backdrop that consists of the sound of bombs in the distance.Â The two men apparently have worked together in darkly political enterprises that have involved deregulation, massive falsehoods, greed and ill-gotten golden parachutes.Â The result of their work is poverty.
“This is all a background to what’s happening in terms of the passion between the characters.Â One of the men is quitting what they call “˜The Group,’ which is another conflict, because you can’t quit once you become part of this coterie of people. There is too much volatile information out there. An unseen character in this play is the son, who was encouraged by his supposed war hero father to join the military, only to be killed.Â Then we find out information about the father that completely alters our vision of him and the sacrifice his son made.”
Barry, who co-stars with Tacey Adams and Joseph Culp, has forged an enviable acting career in film and TV since being cast as one of the ill-fated off-off Broadway Richard III cast members in Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl (1977). Along the way, he starred in such films as the Oscar-winning Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Interview With the Assassin (2002). Currently, he is receiving high praise for his recurring appearance as colorful Arlo Givens in the successful Showtime series, Justified. But Barry avows he is never too far from the stage, having originally been a member of New York’s famed Open Theater Ensemble (1970-73), following his graduation from Brown University and Yale Drama School.Â He has since performed in more than 80 plays and won an LADCC award for his performance in his own Once in Doubt, at LATC in 1989.
“I now approach stage work differently than I did when I was a young man,” he affirms. “I used to tour a lot. When I was with the Open Theater, we traveled every year for four months to Western Europe, the Near East, Algeria, Israel, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Paris.Â Touring was creatively stimulating but difficult in terms of establishing and maintaining meaningful personal relationships.
“I now have four children and have been married for 29 years.Â What I do now is take my own plays to New York, Chicago and Dallas. But I just do one run at a time. Then I come home. It lasts only for four or five weeks. When I make plays, I never use large casts because I’ve built a circuit of theaters throughout the country and I’ve gotta go light.Â I can only move so many bodies from city to city. And I feel the ideas that are mulling around in my brain can be expressed with three people.”
The cast of Awake is the same that premiered the play in March 2011 at New York’s Theater for the New City.Â Although Barry professes he is dealing with political and social issues that are immediately current, he does not feel he needs to make many changes in the script from the New York staging.Â “One beat in the play has been filled out,” he explains. “And the ending has had a structural change.Â That’s it.
“Generally speaking, the play for me expresses a dark cloud that I have been experiencing for some time now about our government.Â Something is awry. The disparagement between the rich and the poor gets wider and wider. People seem to be in trouble.Â They are losing their homes. There is cheating going on at every level of business and government. There is relentless greed. Suddenly, it has become a whole different time in our history where it is not such a great thing to be an elected official. You begin to condescend to them.Â It is no longer a great honor to be a senator or a congressman.
“It is something I can’t quite put my finger on that doesn’t feel comfortable, and I have four kids.Â They have to live in this morass of corruption and I don’t like it. So, I’ve tried to write about it and glue it together and make it into something good.Â And I’ve think we’ve got something in this play.”
Barry has written 12 plays, eight of which have been published. Because he is also quite happy to be working regularly in the more lucrative film/TV industry, he has worked out a schedule that accommodates both.Â “For example, I recently shot an episode of Justified. I now have a number of days in between before I shoot again. I spend that time writing and rehearsing plays.Â I am always in the process of writing a play. Sometimes I’ll develop a play for as long as four years regardless of what the outcome is. I create the work by myself for myself. If I get to put it on stage, that’s great.” Barry also finds time to perform in other people’s work. In 2009, he did Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms at ART in Cambridge.
He professes no interest in screenwriting. “I was seduced into writing for film once, with one of my plays (Once in Doubt), the one I did at LATC.Â But I am not attracted to the writing process of film and television.Â I have an aversion to it because there is too much teamwork involved. It is not private enough. You hand in a script, and then five writers tear it apart and re-write it. I don’t want to do that. I know it is more lucrative but I just am not driven by all of that. I am driven to express my ideas on stage with actors I trust.”
Awake in a World That Encourages Sleep, presented by Electric Lodge and David Radden. Opens Jan 7. Plays Fri-Sat at 8 pm; Sun at 2 pm.Â Through Feb. 26. Tickets: $25; Seniors – $18; Students – $15. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave, Venice. 310-306-4588. www.electriclodge.org
***All Awake in a World That Encourages Sleep production photos by Lee Wexler