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Theatre in Review: The House That Will Not Stand (New York Theatre Workshop)

Nedra McClyde, Juliana Canfield, Joneice Abbott-Pratt. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The plays of Marcus Gardley are notable for a keen sense of drama wedded to a rather florid theatricality, and there's no getting around the fact that the latter sometimes undermines the former. He has emerged as a distinctive voice on race matters, and he keeps finding novel ways of framing his ideas; then again, a little more discipline wouldn't hurt. Over the course of two acts, the house of The House That Will Not Stand is wracked by storms, scandals, catfights, and bizarre supernatural doings. None of this is boring, but neither is it totally believable.

The structure, which, in Adam Rigg's set design, is suitably grand, belongs to the august, matriarchal Beartrice Albans -- or it would, but for the fact that the play unfolds in 1813 New Orleans. Beartrice, who is black, has been kept by the white, married (but not to her) Lazare, in the system known as placage, a tradition in French colonies that allowed for contractual, sub-marital arrangements between blacks and whites. Living with Lazare, Beartrice has produced four daughters, all of whom have been obsessively protected from the outside world. Lazare is now dead, however -- his body lies in state upstage, after dying under murky circumstances -- meaning the family's income stream has dried up. Worse, the United States has purchased the Louisiana Territory and the city is about to undergo a change in governments, with a concomitant loss of rights for black people. As La Veuve, a not-entirely sympathetic observer, notes, "By this time tomorrow, New Orleans will be kneelin' at the feet of Yankees. All the free people of color who don't have wealth or property will lose their rights, and slaves will lose any chance of buying their freedom. Most of the free people of color have already fled to Paris."

(This part is confusing: The script repeatedly notes that the action is taking place in 1813, which would be ten years after the deal with France and a full year after Louisiana became a state. Surely, Gardley knows what he is talking about, but it remains unclear why this handover, and the attendant change in the law, is taking place so late in the day.)

There's plenty more trouble on the horizon: Agnes, one of the daughters, has fallen hard for Ramon Le Pip, "one of the wealthiest bachelors in New Orleans," and the feeling is mutual: With her father's body slowly decaying in the parlor, she schemes to attend -- that very night -- the masked ball where white men meet and, essentially, purchase the rights to quadroon mistresses (known as placees), where she and Ramon can seal a deal. Beatrice has placed the ball strictly off limits to her daughters, so a plot is hatched, requiring the assistance another daughter, Odette, who will impersonate her mother and negotiate Agnes' contract with Ramon. (The scheme also requires trussing up Maude Lynn, the most pious of the daughters, and tying her to the bedpost, in order to keep the plan on the QT.) Meanwhile, a storm is brewing, weird sounds and voices are heard, and Marie Josephine, Beartrice's allegedly crazy sister, will escape from upstairs, egging on her nieces, trading insults with her sister, and delivering rapturous arias about a lost lover. Makeda, the house slave, is desperate to obtain her agreed-upon freedom before the US laws destroy her chances; to get to the bottom of Lazare's death, she channels the man's spirit, leading to a fierce confrontation with Beartrice.

It's quite the gumbo of characters and plot lines, derived from Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba and ingeniously reimagined to accommodate the social, racial, and political realities of the time and place. In its best passages -- of which there are more than a few -- Gardley has devised a language for these desperate, sharp-elbowed characters that sears them into one's imagination. Agnes, recalling how she met Ramon, says, "He looked at me like I was the Last Supper and said, 'Salut'." The scandalized Maude Lynn, recalling a sub rosa exchange between Ramon and Agnes in church, says, "Ramon ripped two pages in a hymnal in the House of God and wrote Agnes a letter like she was a box-ankled jezebel." Beartrice, noting grimly that, under the new laws, Lazare's will, leaving her the house and a great deal of money, is disallowed, says, "The widow still gets everything 'cause her skin is the real currency and mine seems to be losing value as the days go by." The script is rife with ironies: Beartrice, a second-class citizen, is herself a slaveholder. Agnes and Maude Lynn cruelly inform Odette that she has little or no future, because she is marked with the "family stain" of dark skin. Marie Josephine, who shares the "stain," recalls she fell in love with a similarly dark-hued man, a drummer who told her, "I can see past your skin and the lies they put in your head. We were divine way back when. Let me be your King again" -- an offer from which she fled.

At the same time, the script is marked by stylistic inconsistencies that jar and a sense of humor that threatens to veer into camp. Encountering her acid-tongued frenemy, La Veuve, Beartrice says, "What you doing out this late? You know it's too early for ugly to be walkin' the streets. You makin' dogs stray. Go home and cover that insufferable face." Anachronisms abound: When La Veuve, gazing at Lazare's body, claims to feel someone's touch, Beartrice says, "He probably on his way to hell and needed to cop one last feel before the fire." Makeda comments, "Every story can be cut to the chase." (Partly, I think, because his approach was more judicious, Donja R. Love fared better with such tactics in the recent Sugar in Our Wounds.)

Gardley occasionally also settles for tired tropes and weak gag lines. Makeda, recalling a marital dispute on the night of Lazare's death, says he "leapt in the air like a loose firecracker, cracklin' curses and swinging his fist so wild you couldn't tell if he was dancing or having a seizure -- you only knew the man had no rhythm." I surely thought this punchline went out with the old Flip Wilson television show: Makeda, defending Beartrice against suspicions that she poisoned Lazare, says, "She may be crass, calculating, cunning, and unkind, but the woman is still a Christian," a line that in its rhythm and promiscuous use of hard-C sounds, is pure vaudeville.

Certain plot points also defy credibility. Why does the tied-up Maude Lynn wait an unspecified period of time before calling for help? How is the adolescent Odette supposed to pass for the imposing, fiftyish Beartrice, even with her face obscured by a mask? Is this sheltered young lady, who rarely leaves the house, really capable of negotiating a sale? There's also a weird digression during which Beartrice decides to retain her house by confronting Lazare's widow and offering her a taste of her "pie" -- and she's not talking about baked goods. "She wants what every man has wanted from me all my life -- my flesh. I figure it's my cross and my salvation." Well, maybe: You certainly could write a play about a black woman, in late middle age, who successfully seduces her loathed, and loathing, female rival, but it would certainly need more attention than it gets here.

The director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, has seemingly encouraged a generally operatic performance style that can be a bit wearying, but there's no denying that Lynda Gravatt, as Beartrice, moves through the action like a monument on parade, casting shadows of disapproval everywhere. Harriett D. Foy's Makeda is a continually engaging presence, whether fleecing La Veuve of her jewelry in exchange for gossip, fielding various family intrigues, or undergoing possession by Lazare's spirit. Michelle Wilson, last seen in Sweat, introduces a rhapsodic note as Marie Josephine, sailing through arias that recall her love affair -- the only non-abusive male-female relationship in the play, albeit one that is so brief as to barely exist.

Rigg's set, which includes a partial-view second level, is spare yet impressive, and he has designed a ground plan that takes in the several locations required by the set. Yi Zhao's lighting ranges from naturalistic looks -- including a menacing gray-green wash before the storm breaks -- to vividly saturated sidelight washes during the excursions into the spirit world. Montana Levi Blanco's costumes so effectively work an all-black palette that the sight of two daughters in brightly hued ballgowns is positively shocking. Justin Ellington's sound design takes in music, storm surges, and unexplained haunted-house thumps.

In the end, Gardley's house stands, even if it wobbles a bit from time to time. Its foundation is sound, and if you don't mind some of the more garish appointments, you may have a gripping experience there. -- David Barbour

(7 August 2018)

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