Posts Tagged ‘signature theatre’

Cogito: John Branch

March 11, 2014


 JB photo-painting by RC 2


 Open Door to
Open House.

o'neillWhat to do about the American family? Depending on where you stand, the poor thing needs to be either preserved in its traditional form or extensively modernized. And what about the American family drama? Admittedly a less pressing concern, it too is defended from one side and decried from another. At least one critic I could name millerfeels the family drama was okay for Eugene O’Neill, began to wear out its welcome with Arthur Miller, and was completed, perfected, and finished off in Sam Shepard’s Buried shepardChild (1978), only to return as a theatrical version of the undead.

The solution, for both family and family drama, may be to get rid of them. That’s essentially what Will Eno does in an anarchic and deliciously clever play called The Open House, currently at the Signature Theatre. As it begins, we see what looks like a family, embroiled in will enowhat seems to be a drama, but those impressions change. The show can be read as a comic reversal of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the pod people come first and are gradually replaced. The five family members we meet at the outset are creatures of habit and genetics, stuck in their ways. The father either dominates by sniping at everyone else or withdraws into silence; his wife tries to be supportive and conciliatory, etc. Dad is literally stuck—he’s confined to a wheelchair—and the other four remain nearly as frozen in place as he is.

In a way, they’re soulless or dehumanized. None of them refers to one another by name; even the pooch who runs off at the beginning is mentioned only as “the dog.” Nor is the location identified. Although you might, by the end, see a resemblance to the estate in The Cherry Orchard, it’s basically an Everytown USA, as universally American as Grover’s Corners in Our Town.

The original quintet also lacks shoes; Dad’s in slippers, the kids are in their socks, etc. This may be a nod by Eno oliver_butleror by the show’s director, Oliver Butler, to a recent fad in Brooklyn (where Eno lives) but is probably just one of the few signs that these people actually feel at home and at ease.

It’s hard to decide how much to say about The Open House. When there’s pleasure to be had in any work of art or entertainment, part of it usually comes from discovering how the experience unfolds. That’s especially true for this play, which is why I’ve avoided being very specific. If you think I’m being cryptic, you should see what Signature says about it in the overview on its website.

Here’s an example of the show’s humor. When Dad’s brother declares, “They said I was a fool to study Latin, but where are they now?,” he’s promptly quashed by Dad’s answer—“Probably at work.” That’s a snappy comeback, but it carries a little jolt of pain.

Eno is working with the comedy of discomfort, which at any given moment—and probably from one performance to the next—can be awful, hilarious, or an open houseuneasy mix of the two. Maintaining a flexible tone and pace that allow for all these responses is the challenge that faces the five players, Hannah Bos, Michael Countryman, Peter Friedman, Danny McCarthy, and Carolyn McCormick. Under Butler’s guidance, they bring it off masterfully. If the typical family were so smoothly functional, or the typical family drama were this imaginativebut that’s like saying, “If pigs had wings…”

(Signature Theatre, through March 30)

Follow John Branch:

On Facebook On Twitter

On Google+ On Goodreads

Fearless Predictions

May 17, 2012

Medieval Play (Signature Theatre, May 15–June 24): After debuting in 1996 with the potent three-character comedy-drama This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan hasn’t launched a new play in more than 10 years. His adventures in Hollywood during the interim have made for stories of their own, for instance regarding the fate of Margaret, a film finally released last year. Now Lonergan has returned to the stage with a play at Signature’s new facility, which he is also directing. Play info:


Frankenstein (National Theatre Live, June 6–7): Opinion is divided among our contributors over the merits of NT Live presentations in television terms. It’s easier to report that Nick Dear’s script for this production (a reprise from last year) goes back to Mary Shelley’s novel for most of its themes and concerns, giving the creature much prominence. The director is Danny Boyle; Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who shared the 2012 Olivier Award for best actor, alternate as creator and created. Of the experience in the theater, Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian, “on the whole, this is a stunning evening.”                          —JEB

February House (Public Theater, May 17June 10): A new music theatre piece (based on Sheryl Tippin’s book) about a singular group of geniuses who briefly lived, loved, and worked together in a Brooklyn brownstone in the late 1930s. The rent roll included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Paul and Jane Bowles, and the multitalented Gypsy Rose LeeHousemaster George Davis kept their collective noses to the grindstone, and swore to teach Ms. Lee to write (he did).

Illuminated by the political and sexual turmoil of the era, February House earned brilliant reviews during its workout at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven earlier this spring.                                                                                                          —AG

Polisse. (IFC Center, May 18): Maïwenn‘s riveting policier with a difference; an intense, propulsive look at Paris’s Child Protection Unit that races along its multiple story lines, pausing only to snatch your heart with wrenching interludes based on real-life cases. The ensemble cast is superb—especially the filmmaker herself and Joeystarr (usually a pop-rocker/rapper). A Sundance Select film, Polisse has already taken the Cannes Jury Prize, and is a sure magnet for more.                                                                                                                    —AG

%d bloggers like this: