16 March 2014

'The Open House'

Family plays.  We’ve been staging the sagas of troubled families since at least Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in the middle of the 5th century BCE; probably the most dysfunctional family is the one in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which came along a few decades later.  The family in Will Eno’s The Open House, currently at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row, may not involve sacrificing (well, literally, anyway) a daughter, killing a husband (though it might not be far from someone’s thoughts), killing a father or a mother, or committing incest—but the unnamed father, mother, son, daughter, and uncle sure aren’t the Cleavers or the Andersons or the Nelsons.  Hell, they aren’t even the Bunkers!  Even the Munsters and the Addamses were happier.  (Am I giving my age away?) 

My theater partner and I caught the 80-minute, intermissionless Open House, part of the Signature Theatre Company’s All-Premiere Season, on Friday evening, 7 March.  Under the direction of Oliver Butler, the co-founder and co-artistic director of Brooklyn’s Debate Society (whose work I don’t know), the STC production, Eno’s second in his five-year residency, started previews on 11 February and opened on 3 March; it’s scheduled to close on 30 March (after a one-week extension).  Eno, a playwright I’ve know only by name up till now (his first Residency Five production, Title and Deed, premiered at STC in May 2012; his first Broadway opening will be The Realistic Joneses on 6 April at the Lyceum Theatre after a 2012 Yale Rep première; his play Thom Pain (based on nothing) was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), has said that he wrote Open House simply because “there was this play I wanted to write and I had this idea that didn’t go away.”  In a New York Times profile of the dramatist, he also explained, “I had never written a play that was just about a family.”  He’s further admitted, “I’m not completely sure what it’s about,” which turns out not to be big shock.

Eno, 48, grew up in suburban Boston, the youngest of three children, and cycled competitively from about 13 to 23.  He went to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for 3½ years, but left before graduating to move to New York.  Eno studied writing with writer and literary editor Gordon Lish, starting with prose work; he came to playwriting late, after he read a short play by Don DeLillo, The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven, in 1990.  (Eno’s first piece of theater writing was A Canadian Lies Dying on American Ice, a very short piece published on line in 2002, though presumably composed sometime earlier.)  His work has been produced Off-Broadway in New York City starting in the mid-’90s, by U.S. regional companies, and on European stages.  Thom Pain, the Pulitzer finalist that was his first major New York production, has been staged in Brazil, Italy, Germany, France, Norway, Denmark, Israel, and Mexico, among other countries.  Eno, who now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, actress Maria Dizzia (In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), 2009-10, Tony nomination; Captain Phillips, film, 2013), with whom he’s expecting a baby, considers Samuel Beckett and DeLillo influences and Edward Albee, who championed the young writer when he was a fellow at the playwright's foundation, a mentor. 

His writing’s quirky, and despite Eno’s claims to influence (and others’ observation of likeness), Albee wrote of him that “he keeps the voice his own.”  I don’t have enough experience with his work to be certain, but from what I’ve been reading, including interviews and some of his scripts, I think that’s the way his mind works, in unpredictable zigs and zags.  Off-the-wall responses to direct questions aren’t uncommon.  Answering a question about whom he’d like to perform his plays, after listing a number of illustrious contemporary actors, Eno added in all apparent earnestness, “I’ve always wondered what John Wilkes Booth was like as an actor.  Great internal life, you’d have to imagine.”  Asked which superpower he’d like to have, his response was: “The former Soviet Union.”  (These followed a passage of an imaginary dialogue between his character Thom Pain and the Revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine.)  “His plays are formally inventive and verbally dexterous,” affirmed Alexis Soloski in the Times.  Soloski, whose regular beat is the Village Voice, asserted that Eno “has built a career nudging ordinary speech toward the odd, the sad and the marvelous.”  “Some consider Will Eno the Beckett of American suburbia,” wrote Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post.  “Others find him simply maddening,” and Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday asserted that the dramatist’s “dry, odd and cutting work has come close to causing fistfights Off-Broadway.”  The dramatist’s the recipient of several major fellowships, prizes, and awards; his Residency Five tenure at Signature began in 2012 and guarantees him three full world-première productions over five-years.  His plays are published by Oberon Books, Playscripts, Dramatists Play Service, and the Theatre Communications Group.

Open House is like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch, but with a gimmick in its structure.  At 80 minutes, it’s amusing and even enjoyable, but if it was any longer, even 90 minutes, it would’ve been way too long.  As it is, it has no depth at all; the whole point is the gimmick.  I don’t know if Eno’s a closet Structuralist, but this play has definite Structuralist aspects.  (Structuralism, according to Michael Kirby, is an “esthetic theory that emphasizes and gives primary importance to Structure,” which is “the way the parts of a work relate to each other, how they ‘fit together’ in the mind to form a particular configuration.”  Kirby insisted that structural theory “relegates any and all other aspects of a performance”—including narrative and character—”to lesser positions.”  I published “Theatrical Structure” on ROT on 15 and 18 February 2011.)  New York magazine’s Jesse Green confirmed that The Open House shares with earlier Eno works . . . a gem cutter’s interest in formal precision and symmetry rather than content.”  

What the playwright’s set up is a replacement progression: soon after all the family members, none of whom have names in the program (only the actors are listed), are established, about halfway through the play, they start to leave one by one on various errands—the daughter goes out to get sandwiches from a deli, the son goes to bring his new girlfriend to meet his family, the uncle goes to the pharmacy to pick up his invalided brother’s meds.  Shortly after each family member exits, a new character enters, played by the same actor: the daughter (Hannah Bos) is replaced by Anna, a real estate agent who’s showing the house for the open house of the title; the son (Danny McCarthy) is replaced by Tom, the painter-landscaper Anna uses to advise sellers how to spiff up the house for easier sale; the uncle (Michael Countryman) is replaced by Brian, a prospective buyer; and so on.  It’s not quite as pat as that, though.  Anna doesn’t arrive until all but the mother and the father have left the house and she’s accompanied by Brian.  After Tom comes in, the phone rings and the mother learns that her daughter’s had an auto accident and she rushes out to the hospital and actress Carolyn McCormick returns soon as Melissa, Brian’s wife.  Finally, with no one but strangers around him, the acerbic father, who’s had several strokes and heart attacks recently, appears to suffer a recurrence and the visitors all arrange for him to be taken off in an ambulance, only to have actor Peter Freidman reenter as Anna’s brother, a real estate lawyer. 

The house is now occupied entirely by new people, unconnected, except by a possible business transaction which hasn’t actually taken place yet, to the family of the home.  And furthermore, there’s another surprise at the very end of Open House, but I’ll tell you about that momentarily.  (I suspect reviewers were asked not to say anything, and it’s kept under wraps at the theater, as I’ll explain in a bit.  I, however, am gonna let the . . . er, cat out of the bag for you all.  That’s a little joke, you’ll see.)

The plot of The Open House—which theater journalist Soloski described, along with The Realistic Joneses, as “sitcoms broadcast from a weirder, more melancholy world”—is minimal: the two adult children of the couple have gathered at the house, a prototypical suburban two-story bungalow (designed by Antje Ellermann with a spot-on eye), for their parents’ anniversary.  Their platitudinous mother has developed a passive-aggressiveness from years of verbal sniping from their misanthropic father, who never has a nice thing to say to anyone.  Lurking on the periphery of the nuclear (now there’s a pun!) family group is the father’s peculiar brother, who’s still mourning the loss of his wife and living with the family after a stint in rehab.  There’s no real storyline, above what I laid out earlier, except to add that the visit of Anna and the sale of the home is a surprise to the mother and hadn’t been mentioned before the real estate agent’s arrival.  The mother even gets a little miffed when she learns what her husband’s done without telling her, but she quickly curbs her temper.  There’s a lot of dark humor in the family’s essential cluelessness“Did you come straight from the airport?” mother asks daughter.  “I drove here.  It’s a half-hour away,” the daughter replies nonplussed—and the father’s snarky-to-the-max jabs, which often come out of nowhere—“We should go out for a nice dinner,” the father suggests to his wife. “Just the two of us.  Or, just me.”  Non sequiturs are a hallmark of the writer’s dramaturgy.   Eno’s often described as a sort of Beckett-lite (mostly due to Charles Isherwood’s early characterization in his Times notice for Thom Pain: “Mr. Eno is a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation”), but the Absurdist he most reminds me of (though Eno’s not truly an Absurdist himself) is Eugene Ionesco (with a hint of the Edward Albee of The American Dream and The Sandbox).  As I’ve acknowledged, I don’t know Eno’s previous work so I can’t vouch for this, but I’ve read that Open House is the first time he’s deliberately tried to be funny.

Now that little surprise I shouldn’t reveal (but will): In the early moments of the play, there’s business about the family dog’s having run off.  (After the son returns from looking for the dog, he reports that all he’s found is a chew toy and “some fur stuck in the fence.”  “Who are you, Sherlock Holmes?” barks the father.  “I’m just telling you what I saw,” the son responds, perplexed.  “No, seriously—I don’t know who you are.  Is your name Sherlock?”)  It only lasts a few minutes and there’s some coming and going until the subject just disappears as a source of dialogue.  At the end of the play, however, one of the newcomers glances out the window and says, “Hey, there’s a little dog out there.”  Now, it’s all set up as if the dog will either just stay outside or be let in somewhere off stage, say the unseen kitchen (such as occurred in the Richard Nelson play I saw recently, That Hopey Changey Thing), and we’ll never see her.  (There are recorded sound effects.)  But all of a sudden, at the very end of the play, the (real) dog comes bounding into the living room set and sits down while some of the characters fuss over her briefly as the lights come down. (The dog’s a little tan Akita, which may not be entirely irrelevant.  Akitas have the rep of being friendly with family members but distant with strangers.  Since this dog seems happy to accept the new people in the house, it may suggest, on top of the fact that she ran away when the family was at home but came back after they all left, that she approves of these visitors as her new companions.)

As for the issue of the secretiveness, there’s no mention in the program of a dog; even the trainer is credited only as “Special Services.”  But as we left the theater, there was a small sign everyone has to pass by that identifies the trainer (William Berloni, one of the major stage animal trainers, with a 2011 Tony Award for Excellence in the Theatre).  That sign wasn’t there when we entered the theater (or before the house opened, when I came down to the Linney entrance to see what was posted on the usual Signature information board they have outside each performance space).  Obviously, the theater didn’t want anyone to know in advance that there’s a real pup in the play!  I gather Eno’s into gimmicks—though I don’t really know if he’s done this kind of thing before.  He’s admitted, though, “I do love dogs and they stand for a lot to me.”  I wanted to cover this aside, really, because I also like dogs and I just wanted to include it in this report—personal indulgence, no more!  (As I noted in my last ROT theater report, I’ve seen a spate of shows this season with boy actors; now I get to add a canine performer.  Neat!)   And, by the way, Marti, making her theatrical début, is one of the cutest doggies on any stage anywhere.  (IMHO, of course.) 

What any of this means, I can’t really begin to tell you.  Eno, having allowed that he doesn’t know what the play’s about, also asserts, “I’ve always felt . . . that saying ‘what a play is about’ is more the province and right and privilege of the audience, rather than the writer.”  He’s also said, however, “I guess I am sort of dogged by questions about home and growing up and all that stuff.”  The playwright explained:

I’m still sort of dogged [a word, like dogs themselves, Eno favors] and intrigued by the way we grow up in a family and for a while, that is the world.  Then we get out into the world and we either recreate that thing we first knew, or, we mistake the world for that first thing.  Or we willfully deform it into that first thing.  Or are incredibly pleased and surprised or disappointed and saddened that the world is nothing like the thing we first knew.  Or some other strange and complicated—but in some sense entirely logical path is created.  I was interested in taking a sort of normative play arc and applying some new math to it.  Or to say that another way, how do you theatrically and creatively resolve something that doesn’t seem to ever get actually resolved in real life?

My problem with all this is, it isn’t on stage in The Open House.  Well, maybe subliminally or intermittently, but not front and center.  Two things do seem evident to some degree, though.  The open house of the title means more than just the real estate affair that takes up the second part of the play.  It’s an ironic reference to the home of the original family—which is light years from being “open” in any sense of the word.  Everyone who lives or lived there is a sort of prisoner, from the wheelchair-bound father to the defeated mother, to the children who can’t escape the tether.  Knowing full well that his father will snipe at his girlfriend and that his mother will offer nothing but bromides, he can’t wait to bring her over.  And since Eno believes that the brain “does sort of build its connections on its early connections,” there’s little hope for the children to escape the pull.  No one ever talks back to the father or tells the truth in response to off-center remarks by anyone else.  Even the sun is blocked out as the father insists on keeping the shades drawn—until Anna just takes over and pulls them all up and literally lets the light in.  She and her companions open the house.  The dog knew—she ran away and stayed until new folks were in the house. 

The other truth is that the atmosphere in the house is toxic.  Not just metaphorically, either: all the family members are suffering some ailment or injury.  In addition to the father’s strokes and heart disease, the mother has a constant pain in her wrist she’s resigned herself to live with (until Anna relieves it with something like acupressure), the uncle has his depression and bereavement, the daughter’s doctor has discovered a suspicious lump near her spine, and the son gets leg cramps.  No wonder the dog left!  Happiness isn’t an option for his family.  Then the replacements take over, and though they’re connected mostly by a business transaction, they are much more cheerful and contented than the departed family could ever seem.  A prison for the original occupants, Brian and his wife see it as a potential home with “possibilities.”  The painter, after peeling off some of the drab beige wallpaper, discovers to everyone’s delight that a bolder, brighter covering is hidden underneath.  Not everything among the new folks is terrif, though: the painter-landscaper drinks and uses drugs on the sly—a crack in the foundation, perhaps? 

The production was splendid, especially after the disappointment of my last visit to the Signature (Kung Fu, reported on ROT on 11 March).  I don’t know Butler’s work or his ensemble troupe, The Debate Society.  (TDS was founded in 2004 by Butler; writer-actress Hannah Bos, who’s a member of the Open House cast; and Paul Thureen, also a writer and performer.  The three co-founders also serve as co-artistic directors.  They develop works for the company by collaboration and, in their own words, specialize in “unexpected stories set in supremely intricate, vividly theatrical worlds.”)  He would seem, however, a good match for Eno, with whom Butler worked on early readings of the play at Signature over the past year as part of the playwright’s residency.  (Butler’s also worked with Mac Wellman, another playwright known for his idiosyncratic use of language.)  If this production of Open House is any evidence, the collaboration is a good one.  Even assuming that Bos, Butler’s colleague at TDS, knows his methods, the director managed to unify the other four cast members, along with Bos, into a terrific ensemble while maintaining their individuality as both members of the family in the house and the real estate party.  It’s not hard for talented actors to play multiple characters with differentiation, but it’s not as easy for them to blend together in all their guises so that we spectators believe that they all inhabit the same universe.  That takes the guidance of a careful director.  Not only has Butler accomplished this, of course, but he glommed onto Eno’s unique style, which is not Beckett, Ionesco, or Albee, and kept all five actors and all ten characters in tune with the world the writer imagined.  Clearly, working together through the development process made Butler and Eno a creative team.  It will be interesting to see if that continues.  (It looks as if Butler has done all of his work with TDS since it débuted and The Open House appears to be his first break-away gig since then.  The director’s also just been announced to stage Encores! Off-Center’s second season presentation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick, BOOM this June.  Now that he’s out of the cocoon, we’ll see if stays out.)

Ellermann’s set design, the living room and entrance foyer of a nondescript suburban home with the second story under the peaked roof visible above, is sit-com perfect, but a tad seedy and worn.  Not shabby, but lived in and definitely lower-middle-class.  (Down stage right is a large dog bed, taking up considerable space in the cramped room—and small stage set.  It turns out to be a McGuffin of sorts.)  Not only does the playing space serve Open House well, both from the perspective of the atmosphere and the action requirements (it’s a close space, this home, not a lot of room to maneuver even if it’s not spartan or harsh), but the small second floor, its peak pointing skyward but also confining because of the narrowing slope, unlit and undecorated, more like an unfinished attic than an upper dwelling floor, seems to be hiding some secret.  It suggests an ominousness that the brightly lit (though sun-deprived) lower level papers over (if you will).  (The living room closet also hides a kind of secret world.  Not ominous, but lost: it holds toys and games from bygone years.  They’re not discussed, but when the closet’s opened for a quick look inside, we get to see a bit of the family’s past revealed for a second.)  Ellermann’s bio says that The Open House is her fourth play with Eno.  I’d say they’re on the same page, no?  (If I have any judgment in these things—and maybe I do or maybe I don’t—I’d say that Eno-Butler-Ellermann is a theater team in the making.  Maybe y’all should draw up a contract.  I’m jus’ sayin’.)

Not that Bobby Frederick Tilley II and David Lander missed anything in their costume and lighting designs respectively.  Tilley had a double task, of course: not only to get the clothes character-correct, revealing personality and standing at a glance, which he did nicely and with a light touch, but he had to do it twice over, for two sets of characters played by one set of actors so that there wasn’t a moment’s confusion when, say Bos leaves as the daughter and comes back as Anna.  Tilley nailed it.  Them.  Whatever.  And Lander got the atmosphere in the house right, too.  It’s not gloomy or dark, which might be a temptation with the drawn curtains and the overcast of despondency that hangs over the family like Joe Btfsplk’s rain cloud, but when Anna comes in and raises the shades, the contrast is perfectly noticeable.  A tip of the hat must also go to M. L. Dogg’s soundscape for Open House.  For a short play, there are lots of sound effects, from the dog barking to car engines to the ambulance sirens approaching to pick up the father, and the layers of scene-setting sounds that Dogg constructed for the opening moments of the play—a church bell ringing, a bike bell, birds chirping, the dog, music playing, and a gallimaufry of suburban noises—is actually arresting.  Sounds come and go all through the 80-minute playlet. 

The acting is uniformly excellent—actually, excellent squared, since everyone has to create two distinct characters in a very short time.  (Granted, the characters are little more than a single dimension and card-stock thin, but that’s what The Open House demands.)  It’s impossible to single anyone out in the ensemble, but I’ll just note a few salient points.  As the mother, Carolyn McCormick, probably most recognizable as Dr. Elizabeth Olivet on the early years of Law & Order, does a fine job navigating the narrow path between subjugation and passive-aggressive resignation.  McCormick maintains a spark of strength and resistance to her husband’s viciousness, but it’s almost extinguished (and really only shows up when the two are alone).  Michael Countryman has long been one of my favorite character actors, always turning in superb performances whenever I’ve seen him, in classics like Schiller’s Mary Stuart on Broadway to contemporary parts in plays as diverse as Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano to Terrence McNally’s Stendhal Syndrome.  (I just don’t know why this actor isn’t nationally famous.  He works all the time.  Maybe he likes it that way.)  As the uncle and then as Brian, the prospective house buyer, Countryman creates two distinct and recognizable figures, and his uncle is so convincingly damaged and beaten—by his brother’s abuse, the traumatic loss of his wife, his depression, and his former substance abuse—that it’s almost hard to believe that he immediately transforms into well-adjusted, cheerful Brian.  Bos was the first actor to return as a second character and it took me a few beats to realize that Anna (about whose eventual appearance I was forewarned by the Times review, though not the circumstances) was the same actress as the daughter.  As the daughter, Bos seemed somewhat dumpy, very lost (her brother has a girlfriend, but she seems to have no one), and needy—a superannuated adolescent really.  Her real estate saleswoman is in charge, confident, upbeat, and even looks 10 years older and more mature.  When Anna moves to pull up the blinds over the father’s wishes, Bos just brushes him aside and takes control.  As for Peter Friedman, his lawyer-brother in the second part can’t really measure up to his acerbic father, but the lawyer is more connected and more coherent, a much more grounded person than Freidman’s father.  As written, the first character is a nasty joke machine: drop in a nickel and out comes a jab or a dig.  Freidman delivers the quips expertly—they all land with a zing—but they seem programmed, which is Eno’s responsibility (and perhaps his intention).  I’m not entirely sure how he does it, though, but Freidman did make clear somehow that this nasty streak is not a side effect of his strokes—he’s not a dirty old Sophia Petrillo in male drag—but that he’s been like that for many years.  (I hate to leave Danny McCarthy out, but as good as he was, I’m afraid I’ve shot my wad on the other four.  He did as well as they, but I have no particular remark to impart.  Same with the dog, whose appearance was just a really nice lagniappe.  Dogs make me smile!)

The press was pretty unanimous in its praise of The Open House (and Eno’s playwriting in general).  Though several noted that not everyone enjoys his deliberate obscurity or the brittleness of his language, most reviewers, pointing out that Eno’s structure is more interesting than his plots, nevertheless seemed to be rooting for him to make it big.  (Almost all the notices made the point that The Realistic Joneses is opening soon on Broadway.)  The Post’s Vincentelli, expanding on her opening remark by warning that “the playwright’s deadpan tone, lack of conventional plot and finicky attention to language have driven hordes of theatergoers crazy with boredom,” countered that “just as many find those traits fascinating.”  The Post reviewer complained that the first part of The Open House is “slow-drip torture,” but that “this surreal comedy takes a sudden left turn halfway through and considerably perks up.”  She summed up her appraisal by asking, “What does this all mean?”  Her answer?  “Who knows.”  Vincentelli ended with the truism, “Whether you like him or not, there’s nobody like Will Eno.”  Asserting that “it’s very impressive that playwright Will Eno extracts so much pungent humor and so many poignant observations in a fleet 80 minutes,” Joe Dziemianowicz lauded Eno in the Daily News for his “small but satisfying work” that “creates the delight” of the “impeccable performances” elicited by Butler.

Newsday’s Winer called Open Housea taut, malevolently witty family catastrophe of a tragicomedy” in which “[t]he ground shifts, as even the powerful are made small by life’s mysteries.”  In the Times, Charles Isherwood warned potential spectators that “you’ve probably never seen a fractious family stage the uncanny disappearing act that takes place in ‘The Open House,’” which he characterized as a “mordantly funny but disappointingly hollow comedy.”  Calling Eno “one of the most vital, distinctive voices in the American theater,” the man who solidified the playwright’s Beckett connection declared, “Once encountered, his style is not likely to be forgotten.”  Along with their “wry humor,” Eno’s “plays are also infused with a haunted awareness of, and a sorrowful compassion for, the fundamental solitude of existence,” said Isherwood.  The Timesman admitted to an appreciation for “the cool temperature” of Eno’s writing, but felt that “the flat, stylized comic dialogue that is his specialty sits somewhat uneasily inside the frame of a play set in an average-looking suburban living room.”  Affirming that “never before have I felt that Mr. Eno’s idiosyncratic comic style was sidling up to shtick,” Isherwood felt that “the play begins to feel like a randomly assorted series of comic ‘bits’ arranged in no particular order.”  Explaining that “the play’s starchy artificiality becomes a little oppressive,” the Times review-writer lamented that “there’s not much of a discernible human pulse in these characters”—until, that is, the second part, when “the play acquires an intriguing new layer that jump-starts its stalled engine.”  Then, Isherwood wrote, The Open House, “which seemed to be stuck in an arid groove, begins to acquire intriguing new meanings” and the play comes “to a haunting conclusion.” 

In the Village Voice, Alexis Soloski (back at her regular gig) observed that in The Open House, “there’s no place quite so dangerous as home.”  The play, Soloski wrote, seems almost a parody of a certain kind of realist play,” but then, “Eno’s writing sets the piece apart, as his lines resemble sitcom dialogue script doctored by Schopenhauer.”  In the end, however, the Voice reviewer felt, “Neither Eno nor director Oliver Butler can make the play’s import outpace its inventive structure.”  The New York Observer’s Jesse Oxfeld explained that Eno “specializes in offbeat, largely affectless wordplay that underscores the fundamental loneliness of existence” and that Open House “may form the apotheosis of that combination.”  In Butler’s staging, Oxfeld wrote, the STC production “is impeccably acted and very funny; it also feels sad, empty and somewhat meaningless.”  Jesse Green felt in New York, Funny as [the play] is . . . you quickly feel locked into the characters’ misery” until the second part of the play “when Eno shifts gears into surreal.”  Though Green judged that the production was “drolly directed by Oliver Butler,” he observed that Eno’s “is a highly purified dramaturgy” and the dramatist “does not signal [a theme], any more than he provides exposition or explanations.”  The man from New York concluded, “Language is all he gives us to hang on to, and . . . it’s slippery at best.”  In “Goings On About Town,” the New Yorker affirmed, “There’s a whisper of a plot in Will Eno’s new dark comedy”; however, “the main event is watching each oppressed family member leave the stage and then, a few minutes later, come back as a different, healthier character.”  The reviewer concluded, “The writing is sometimes funny, and the acting, under the direction of Oliver Butler, is strong, but, lacking any depth, this twisty sitcom comes across as merely clever."

Stephan Lee hinted, “The living room set of Will Eno's The Open House . . . could easily be the set of a warm family sitcom” in Entertainment Weekly, but warned, “The vitriolic banter, while fun to witness, takes its toll.”  Lee’s final assessment, however, was that “in The Open House, just as the misery and back-biting starts to feel excessive—even indulgent—Eno takes a left turn and finds a way to make harmony as radical and satisfying as discord.”  In Show Business, the weekly theater trade paper, Daniel Glenn called Open House an “odd and poignant comedy” that “really does nothing less than set the genre on its head.”  Glenn singled out as grounds, first, Eno’s “singular way with words” and second, Open House’s structure.  He also pointed out that the production “is a showcase for actors, and the cast takes advantage”  as “Eno effortlessly defines the familiar . . . and then nudges it into the world of the strange.”  In Time Out New York, David Cote called the play “an unconventional take on family drama,” and quipped, “If the American family drama were a trout (stay with me), playwright Will Eno would gut it, shellac it, mount it on a plaque and make it wiggle and croon ‘Take Me to the River.’”  The man from TONY explained: “What I mean is that his work combines studied banality, sneaky weirdness and formal ingenuity.”  “Director Oliver Butler finds the right balance of melancholy and silliness,” Cote assured his readers, and added that “the actors are so attuned, they’ll make you feel like you’re home for the holidays.” 

In the cyber press, Elyse Sommer on CurtainUp called Open House “Eno's at once funniest and saddest play to date” exemplifying “the Eno pattern of having his plots and people stray from the path of normalcy.”  Sommer observed that Open House “is definitely a fresh twist on the much done dysfunctional play genre,” a good reason, she insisted, for potential theatergoers to put the play “on their to-see list.”  “A Will Eno play always seems to leave the audience walking out asking the same question: Was that the greatest thing I've ever seen or the most awful?” asked TheaterMania review-writer David Gordon.  Of Open House, Gordon said that when the play ends, “all you know is that, in 80 minutes, he has picked apart an entire genre, thrown the pieces into the air, and refused to put them back together.  That in and of itself is mind-blowing to watch.”  The TM writer added, “Dramaturgically, not only is the text incredibly well-structured in its dismantling of the classic family-play genre, but it is also quite thought-provoking,” praising both the directing of Oliver Butler and the acting of the ensemble.  On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray declared that “Eno continues his exploration of this matter”—“Does anyone belong anywhere?”—“and of the limits of audience patience.”  Observing that the playwright’s subject “would suggest at least somewhat meaty potential,” Murray warned, however, that “Eno cares less about telling a theatrical story than in presenting a theatrical style that engages the audience in full defiance of common sense.”  The reviewer declared that Eno’s technique of “disconnect” “results in stage shows that sound like nothing and feel like even less” and that “The Open House feels particularly strained trying to live up to Eno’s wink-wink attitudinizing.”  The pay’s lines “drip with the voice of the playwright rather than individual souls in search of expression,” wrote the TB reviewer, concluding with an admonition: “Existentialist joke machines only go so far.” 

[I don’t often comment on a reviewer’s critical record, though I have occasionally taken exception to or endorsed a writer’s opinion of one play or another.  But I’ve been reading Matthew Murray’s reviews now for some time—Talkin’ Broadway’s been one of my regular stops when I prepare the review round-up for my performance reports for ROT—and a pattern appears to have been revealed over time.  I haven’t gone back and surveyed his collected evaluations and judgments, and I haven’t read any of his reviews of plays other than the one’s I’ve seen and reported on on this blog, so maybe I’m off track.  I don’t think so, though.  Murray seems to be something of a contrarian, forming assessments that diametrically conflict with the consensus of other published reviews, as well as my own opinion much of the time.  Now, of course, he’s entitled to have and to voice his own response to any public performance, and a variety of voices is valuable.  It’s basically why I started doing the survey at the end of my reports, to provide an overview of the other responses to a play in contrast to or agreement with my own analysis.  After all, my opinion isn’t really any more significant that his—or anyone else’s—except maybe to me.  But I find it curious that when the prevailing sense of a performance is positive, Murray seems to pan the show, and when the papers and websites generally dislike a production, he praises it.  I also note that he can get quite vehement, especially in his disapprobation, almost as if he were aggrieved by a bad theater experience.  (I’m reminded of something I read years ago concerning review-writing: a bad play or a bad production are not crimes against humanity.)  The posting dates for his TB reviews suggest that he isn’t waiting until the notices are published and then taking the opposing view, like a debater assigned a position or a sophist who only wants to get into an argument.  He also seems knowledgeable, though I don’t know anything about his background or experience.  I guess the conclusion is that he’s just wired differently from most of the rest of us, not that I always agree with the consensus. (I make it a practice not to read other reviews before I compose my report and state my own opinion, with the sole exception of the New York Times, since that comes to my door.)  I don’t know what anyone else does, but since Murray’s reviews are posted on or around the dates for the first published notices, that is, the day of or the day after the play’s opening, I assume he’s forming his opinion in the theater or right afterwards.  He just seems always to come down of the opposite side from nearly everyone else.

[One last note of significance:  This report on Will Eno’s The Open House marks the fifth birthday of Rick On Theater.  I launched this blog on 16 March 2009; 384 posts later, this is where we are.  I hope I've provided some little edification, some enjoyment, and some amusement along the way.  ~Rick]

1 comment:

  1. In the "Arts, Briefly" column of the New York Times of 20 May 2014, Patrick Healy reported: "A playwriting Obie went to Will Eno for 'The Open House,' and Oliver Butler won a directing Obie for the show."

    Healy also reported:

    "The critically acclaimed Off Broadway plays 'Appropriate' and 'An Octoroon' dominated the 59th annual Obie Awards on Monday night, with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins winning the best new American play award for writing both dramas. In addition, Johanna Day, star of 'Appropriate,' and Chris Myers, star of 'An Octoroon,' received Obie performance awards, and Liesl Tommy won a directing Obie for 'Appropriate.'" I blogged about the production of 'Appropriate' on ROT on 31 March.

    The Obie Awards, originated by the Village Voice, honor work in Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theater. The 2014 awards were presented at Webster Hall in the East Village.