Bethany Palmer hasn't slept in 13 years, not since her son Andrew was born. Fearing a ghoulish Sandman she believes is out to steal Andrew's eyes, she stays up all night nervously knitting sweaters and tremulously singing lullabies. When her husband, Warren—a cop who insists he "can't be married to a wraith"—absconds with Andrew to New York City, Bethany follows them in her plaid pajamas. As she frantically explains to a dopey bookstore owner before holding up his shop with a plastic gun, "I'm a patchwork woman, a crazy quilt."
The same could be said of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's nightmarish fairy tale of a play. There is much of this quilt to like: the bursts of dark comedy, the unraveling moral landscape, the improbably adult wishes of young Andrew, the hallucinatory blurring of dream and reality. But Aguirre-Sacasa's script is also frustratingly intent on spelling out its sensationalistic warnings from the beginning. On the bus to New York, Bethany (Karen Wennstrom) meets a seemingly ditzy woman (admirably underplayed by Beth Thompson) who delivers the ultimate fear-instilling message: "Kids are never safe," she intones somberly.
The Velvet Sky goes on to bludgeon that message home, as Andrew runs away from his father (Tom Mounsey) to explore New York's underbelly. Still, director Jane Bement Geesman and her Theatre Vertigo cast and crew manage to treat this heavy-handed excursion with vigor. Eerie sound design and a canny set—triangular prisms that rotate to represent urinals at Port Authority, cinema marquees and deli windows—create a rich atmosphere as Andrew meets a series of shady characters played by Andy Lee-Hillstrom. Rather than portraying these figures as one-dimensional perverts, the excellent Lee-Hillstrom imbues them with shades of moral ambiguity. He's one of Portland's best young actors.
The rest of the cast chomps into the material with similar energy, from Mario Calcagno's cop from Queens to Thompson's overeager museum employee. As Andrew, whose preternaturally mature interests include clubbing and attending NC-17 movies, teenage actor Nathan Berl balances innocent inquisitiveness with growing anxiety. The nightclub scene is a highlight: It's a madcap triptych, with Berl glow-sticking on one side, two actors grooving enthusiastically on the other and Wennstrom flailing in the middle.
But just when it seems the play has dropped enough hints to conclude with appealing mystery, it jackknifes into lurid overexplanation. If this is what happens when the characters wake up and see the truth, I'd rather their hallucinations continue.
SEE IT: The Velvet Sky is at Theater! Theatre!, 3430 SE Belmont St., 306-0870. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays through March 16. $15 Fridays-Saturdays, âpay what you wantâ Thursdays.