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Theatre in Review: Tiny House (Westport Country Playhouse Online)

Elizabeth Heflin, Denver Milord, Sara Bues. Photo: courtesy of Westport Country Playhouse.

Tiny House is a comic conversation about our fraught historical moment, but the characters impaneled by playwright Michael Gotch have remarkably little to say for themselves. The structure of the title, located in the exact middle of nowhere, is occupied by Nick and his wife Sam. He is a forward-thinking architect, so their new home is impeccably designed and ecologically correct in all respects. It's a space-saving, solar-powered, sanitary wonder; among other things, we hear all about the meticulously appointed bathroom and its compost-creating features.

It's the Fourth of July and the couple is hosting Sam's mother, Billie, whose husband (Sam's father) is in the slammer for staging "the second-largest Ponzi scheme since Jesus walked the earth." She brings along her new beau, Larry, a nerdy high school science teacher who also happens to be her brother-in-law. Also on the guest list are neighbors Win and Carol, aging hippies dressed in Tudor finery left over from their Renaissance Faire days. (Later, they model items from their Lord of the Rings collection, complete with elvish ears). Then there's Bernard, a survivalist and possible retired CIA agent, who drops by occasionally -- often toting a dead marmot suitable for barbecue -- with unsettling bulletins from the outside world.

With the characters ensconced in their off-the-grid retreat, Tiny House unrolls a lengthy list of discussion points, few of which are explored in detail. The agenda includes mushroom clouds, MAGA-ism, climate change, and wokeness, among other facets of life in the not-entirely-lovable twenty-first century. "So many terrible things happening," muses Sam, as if we hadn't heard. Meanwhile, tensions are simmering between optimistic Nick and downbeat Sam on the subject of children, an argument complicated by an alluded-to miscarriage. Nick, proudly declaring his democratic socialist bona fides, faces sniping from Billie, whose life of wealth and privilege has slipped through her fingers. Billie, in turn, defends herself against critical sallies from Sam, who is embarrassed by her mother's youthful career as Playboy Club waitress. ("I wasn't Gloria Steinem, OK? I wasn't Debbie Harry," Billie says, offering a rather bizarre defense for slinging cocktails in a bunny suit.)

These, however, constitute the undercard, the main event being the bare-knuckled battle between Sam and Billie regarding their toxic family history. Her father's notoriety has caused Sam to retreat from an ill-defined career in social media, having been canceled by her colleagues. Billie, who denies any complicity her husband's schemes, has been reduced to living in a cheap, water-stained apartment, preyed on by a lecherous landlord. She adds, "I take a bus to work at a mall thirty miles from anyone who ever knew me to sell overpriced shoes to the kind of women with whom I used to chair gala fundraisers and to which I used to wear my own overpriced shoes." Their showdown -- each trying to top with the other in the victimization department -- isn't pretty but, after so much glib commentary, it carries the authentic sting of drama. It's also oddly revealing: Tiny House wants to the take the temperature of a world gone mad, but it only gets juicy when focusing on family grievances.

Much of the time, Tiny House tries, unsuccessfully, to fuse literate political conversation with stark confrontations and farcical interludes, mostly featuring Win and Carol, involving turbocharged vegan pot brownies, an episode of primal screaming, and a sage-burning ceremony. It's tired stuff, left over from an old SNL episode, and it only highlights the play's scattershot, what-shall-we-talk-about-now quality.

In any case, Mark Lamos' direction is slickly paced and alert to changes of mood. Among the cast, Elizabeth Heflin's Billie -- an impeccably made-up sybil of doom -- stands out, but there are solid contributions from Sara Bues (Sam), Denver Milord (Nick), and Lee E. Ernst (Larry). Stephen Pelinski and Kathleen Pirkl-Tague work wonders with those paper-thin caricatures Win and Carol; Hassan El-Amin is an effectively enigmatic Bernard. Everything else about the production is solidly professional, including Charlie Corcoran's digital rendering of Hugh Landwehr's original scenic design and the sound design of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, aided by mixer/editor/additional sound designer M. Florian Staab.

If the characters were more engaging, if their insights were more penetrating, and if the action were more focused, Tiny House would have a shot at being the state-of-the-world play it wants to be -- and its final moment, which juxtaposes hopeful news with hints of disaster might really detonate. Instead, it is content to skate across the surface of its troubling subject matter. As Sam notes, so many terrible things happening. And so little opportunity to explore them. --David Barbour

(2 July 2021)

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