nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 6, 2009
Theresa Rebeck's Our House very much wants to be an incisive play about big ideas: the saturation of America by media, the insidious collapse of the boundaries between "news" and "entertainment," the overtaking of the idea that information has inherent value by a pure "whatever sells" motive—and ultimately, possibly even the decline and fall of American culture. But neither the ideas nor the characters who serve as their mouthpieces have enough substance to make it fly. Despite a physically gorgeous production, tightly directed by Michael Mayer and boasting some wonderful performances, there's no emotional or intellectual core here. The play could be viewed as cleverly constructed to make a point about the hollowness of contemporary American media and cultural productions—but instead, it just feels hollow itself.
Part of the problem is that the play is set in two utterly separate worlds, and the build-up to understanding how they connect is very, very slow. For the whole first act, they split the stage space, providing an interesting visual contrast, but not showing any relationship to each other more than a tenuous thematic connection. The first setting we see is the chrome-and-glass office of TV network head Wes, the kind of guy who can say, in all sincerity, "Staying informed in America is optional," and mean that to be a good argument to cut back on news programming no matter what the FCC has to say about it. Wes is doing everything he can to advance the career of up-and-coming reporter Jennifer Ramirez, including, in a burst of "synergy," tapping her to host a Big Brother-like reality program called "Our House," and then also covering the results of that competition on her morning news program. Jennifer has mixed feelings about the specifics of her new job, but her ambition trumps her reservations, and her star continues to rise.
The other half of the action takes place in a down-at-the-heels shared house in St. Louis, inhabited by a motley crew of twenty-somethings. While medical intern Grigsby and tech-support guy Vince seem content to live and let live, the other two housemates, couch-potato Merv and high-strung hippie Alice, are constantly at each other's throats over issues as small as who ate whose yogurt. Merv, a TV junkie who seems permanently parked on the couch watching "Our House" (the aforementioned connection between the two sides of the play), is more or less tolerated by Grigsby and Vince, until Alice (who's responsible for the house bills) alerts them that he's thousands of dollars behind on rent and expenses. A contentious house meeting follows, and the gloves come off.
Pretty much all of Act I is back-story and exposition, introducing characters and bringing us into their worlds. In TV land, we focus on Wes's attraction to Jennifer; Jennifer's dreams of serious journalism but her willingness to make compromise after compromise to advance her career; Wes's news-division head, Stu, beating his head against the brick wall of Wes's indifference to any concept of "public service"; Wes's staunch belief that ignorance is an American birthright. In St. Louis, it's the day-to-day grind of Grigsby's emergency-room shifts; the petty squabbles over whose turn it is to clean that gradually mount into major blow-ups; the stresses of living paycheck to paycheck and sharing space with other people; Alice's belief that America needs to turn off the television and live a little; Merv's utter dependence on that television.
Now, a certain amount of this, handled in a matter-of-fact, low-key way without emphasis being placed on a build in the narrative, is used as a kind of structural sleight-of-hand to heighten the impact of a shocking twist right before the act break—and there's no doubt that the shock hits with full force, setting up a second-act collision between the two worlds of the play. But even with the narrative shift into a higher gear, the second act feels no more emotionally or intellectually fleshed-out than the first; we're seeing generic, predictable characters and ideas rather than nuance or originality. Even one of the play's climactic moments, Merv's ultimate confession that television is a distraction from an existential void, feels completely predictable.
Plus, almost all of the set-up is so neatly visually captured in the production design, especially Derek McLane's set and Susan Hilferty's costumes, that half the exposition could have been handled without anyone saying a word. The sleek minimalism of Wes's office, lacking even a visitor's chair; his glass desk bare but for a telephone; his mini-refrigerator full of Perrier; his rumpled black suit-navy shirt-shell necklace ensemble—these all tell you most of what you need to know about this guy before he even opens his mouth. Watching Jennifer progress from alluring yet professional black-and-white wrap dresses to candy-colored tops with ruffled necklines shows the route her career is taking even before you hear her announce a story about tropical fish. And similarly, the physical environment in the house, from the background clutter on the set—its fraying rattan chair and many-times-handed-down couch, the outdated wallpaper and bikes accumulating in the foyer—to Merv's holy socks and a refrigerator empty but for Alice's expensive Greek yogurt lays as much groundwork as most of the dialogue exchanged among these people.
A generally high level of performance, especially among the housemates, also helps to keep things interesting. The real standout is Jeremy Strong, who makes the deadbeat, deeply dishonest, and potentially sociopathic Merv compelling, funny, and even occasionally sympathetic. But Katie Kreisler as Alice, the always interesting Mandy Siegfried as Grigsby, and Stephen Kunken as Stu also bring welcome energy to underwritten characters—like a touch of rueful humor in the desperately serious Alice; Kreisler lets us laugh at Alice's absurdities without mocking them herself.
The production is wonderful; I wish all of these talents could have been assembled for a richer, more genuinely thought-provoking play.