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Theatre in Review: The Open House (Signature Theatre)

Peter Friedman, Danny McCarthy, Michael Countryman, Hannah Bos, Carolyn McCormick. Photo: Joan Marcus

Whether he is spinning monologues about existential angst in solo shows like Thom Pain (based on nothing) or building whole communities where reality is a slippery thing, as in Middletown, the playwright Will Eno traffics in mysteries and paradoxes. Even when his plays appear to be telling linear stories, one has a sneaking suspicion that he is doing nothing of the kind. The Open House is a fine example of his aesthetic; whether this mildly amusing, modestly baffling piece is worth your time and attention is harder to divine.

The action is set in a smallish, but comfortable-looking suburban house; through the windows, one can see attractive displays of autumn leaves. It's a Wednesday, and members of a family have gathered for a visit. The father (Peter Friedman) is a bitter, angry scold, confined to a wheelchair following a stroke. His dormouse wife (Carolyn McCormick) sits in her chair, fiddling with a puzzle, attending to the pain in her wrist (it's really nothing, she insists), and mouthing platitudes designed to avoid familial conflict. Their milquetoast children (Hannah Bos and Danny McCarthy) hover on the couch, trying to avoid their father's serrated tongue. A brother-in-law (Michael Countryman) hovers in the background.

When the latter makes a comment about one of them, Friedman replies, "How many times must I ask you to never think about this family?" When he refers to McCarthy as his only son, McCormick replies, "What do you mean your only son? What about Richard?" "Bleah," says Friedman. A minute later, he savages one of his children for using the word "like" incorrectly, then in despair adds, "Why do I bother to open my heart to you?" McCormick, as if explaining everything, says, "You know your father loved you when you were little. It was only later, when you started to talk ..." Mercifully, she lets the thought trail off. For his part, Friedman adds, "I bet if I had a little more charisma, all this would really fly -- all the cruelty and negativity."

A little of this goes a long way, and after a few amusing minutes of toxic exchanges, it begins to look like The Open House will be well-nigh unbearable. Then Bos leaves, on a mission to pick up a deli lunch for everyone; the scene continues, and, a few minutes later, the actress returns not as the daughter, but as a real estate agent who is planning on showing the house. The conversation continues, but the center of gravity has been upset now that an outsider is there, full of chatter about her career, her kids, and her plans for the future. Then McCarthy leaves, ostensibly to pick up his girlfriend, and returns as a mildly crude, substance-abusing construction guy.

And so it goes, with each member of the family departing and returning as a stranger who is involved in the sale of the house. (I fear I'm giving away the store here, but The Open House has so little else to offer, there's no other way to discuss it.) By the time Friedman's caustic patriarch is left alone among these happy-talking intruders, you almost begin to feel for him. Then he, too, leaves -- he is rushed to the hospital due to a possible heart attack -- only to return as a lawyer consulting on the sale. By the end, the original family is totally gone, their neuroses and rages replaced by a bunch of cheerful strangers, and yet there is an eerie sense of displacement about it all.

As a puzzle play about alienation, kinship, and the evanescence of life -- actually, I'm guessing a bit here -- The Open House has a few moments, and under Oliver Butler's keen-eyed direction, the cast is never less than delightful. It's especially amusing to see McCormick's domestic drab transformed into a chic house hunter, and the same is true of the way Bos morphs from the frightened daughter into a confident, fast-talking businesswoman. Friedman is truly outrageous as the acid-tongued father, and both McCarthy and Countryman are thoroughly professional about creating distinct characterizations.

If only Eno's act of theatrical legerdemain carried more weight, more oomph, more something. He is a whiz at creating little vaudeville exchanges between the father and his relatives, but they mostly seem like mere wordplay, and the conversations never build to anything really engaging. The central action of the play has a certain cleverness about it, but it doesn't really resonate; one watches it feeling like Eno is alluding to the basic predicaments we all find ourselves in, but his writing never really touches the deeper emotions. Worse, it's hard not to feel that much of what he writes is a kind of warmed-over absurdism, with the sting removed. At times, he comes off as an acid-free Edward Albee, a Harold Pinter minus the menace.

Everything else about the production has the usual Signature Theatre polish, including Antje Ellermann's beautifully lived-in set, which is gorgeously lit with strongly directional late afternoon sunlight looks by David Lander. Bobby Frederick Tilley II's costumes easily accomplish the task of differentiating the characters through simple changes of clothes. M. L. Dogg's sound design delivers a few key effects, including phones and police sirens.

The Open House is never dull, the cast is a pleasure, it looks great, and some of the dialogue is nicely turned. Eno has many fans, but I continue to wait for him to deliver a play that is something more than a gently quizzical puzzle. Surely there is more to his work than that -- isn't there? -- David Barbour

(7 March 2014)

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