nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 15, 2008
Open House is an intriguing theatrical experiment whose execution doesn't quite live up to its premise. The concept behind this show is that each performance is done in a different NYC apartment, thus creating an organic mix of unknowns for both audience and artists every night of the run. The intended themes of the piece are presented up-front, right as the evening begins: living in a big city like New York, says the "real estate agent" who serves as Open House's narrator/guide, is "an eight-million-person blind date." (I love this image.)
The agent—whose name is "Three"—introduces us to the evening's host (i.e., the person whose apartment we are in), and then to Rick and Jane, who enact a panoramic history of their relationship, told through the many apartments in which they've lived, from Williamsburg to Jamaica to Tribeca. Their story makes up the main part of Open House, and it's interesting and well-told, tracking them from optimistic anything-is-possible urbanites who are somehow never quite ready to commit either to their relationship or to their current living arrangement, to weary been-there-done-thats on the crest of middle age, regretting those missed opportunities and now finding life in New York too expensive and too difficult to master.
And then...something happens. That something is never identified, but it's clearly catastrophic, and it empties New York and a number of other cities around the world. Now Rick and Jane are back, in the very apartment we're in, re-colonizing the city, so to speak. Three is the entrepreneur driving this particular redevelopment effort, and what we're watching, we now understand, is his sales pitch. The play continues with Three explaining how This Is The Time to make a killing in New York real estate.
The shift in focus from Rick and Jane to Three is jarring and problematic, however. Why would Three employ Rick and Jane to perform a play for his prospective buyers as part of his pitch? Once the piece shifted from the "play" segment to the "pitch" segment, I kept wondering whether there couldn't have been a way to incorporate the themes of the latter into the former. The main idea of the final part of Open House seems to be the dark and cynical notion that humans never learn: here we are in a post-apocalyptic NYC that has driven all but some squatters and some pioneers out of what was once the cultural capital of the Western Hemisphere, but instead of trying to fix the problems that caused the city's implosion, all they seem to be worried about is how to make a buck. Rick and Jane's story doesn't really lead us to this conclusion; is there a way that playwright Aaron Landsman could have made this all more of a piece?
And the site-specific nature of the project isn't finally much supported by the work, either. I was willing to accept that Rick and Jane were "doing a show" on a sofa in a stranger's living room, but the show pulls us out of that into its titular "open house" concept and then we're really left wondering why we need to be in this particular apartment at all. The welcome speech delivered by our host was interesting but ultimately has little to do with the rest of Open House. The governing idea of the project finally feels too much like a gimmick, failing to serve the piece in any important way.
All that said, Landsman is a fine storyteller, and the way he reveals the history of Rick and Jane's relationship is compelling and entertaining. Paul Willis and Heidi Schreck do excellent work as Rick and Jane, guiding us seamlessly through the many years and locales of their one-act play, and coping expertly with unexpected interruptions (as when the phone rang in the middle of one of their scenes). The framing device of the real estate pitch is less accomplished in terms of both writing and performance, though: Raul Castillo never convinced me that he was a salesman and not an actor.
Open House is one of several site-specific projects being mounted by The Foundry Theatre this year. I certainly applaud their efforts to push theatre's boundaries into non-traditional territory, literally as well as figuratively. But Open House must be ranked as a less-than-successful attempt to do just that.