nytheatre.com review by Stephen Speights
August 13, 2006
Open House is sprawling, impossible to ignore or dismiss, and likely to induce everything from belly laughs to shocked effrontery—just like the tasteless monster-of-a-yard-display that prompts its action. According to Open House, America has been reduced to a battle between self-absorbed, morally dubious elitists on the left and xenophobic racists on the right, here living right next door to each other on the same cul-de-sac somewhere in suburban America. When Alistair and Beverly, our preening liberal couple, approach the day they hope to sell their home (and trade up their neighborhood "before the housing bubble bursts"), they must confront their neighbors, Lewis and Melanie, and the garish, post 9/11 tribute to the patriotic wars of America they have stretched, border to border, across their front yard.
Using such an ugly metaphor for the pervasive, myopic American patriotism rampant in our country, the play seems firmly positioned to skewer it, but playwright Ross Maxwell doesn't make it so easy. Frankly, these right-wingers can't hold a candle to the liberals on the pristine side of the fence when it comes to awful behavior. Alistair and Beverly are condescending and self-serving in their righteous concern over their neighbors' front yard display, and narcissists who seem, somehow, entirely oblivious to the fact that their "tween" daughter Sylvia is on the fast track to insanity. (Bess Rous's performance as boy-crazy Sylvia is alone worth the price of admission in a show full of strong and funny performances, ably directed by Josh Hecht.)
The upshot, unfortunately, is that we have no one to root for—pretty much every character in this play commits what, if it isn't, then OUGHT to be a felony, including intent toward sexual abuse of a minor (or, at the very least, intoxication of and indecent exposure to one), kidnapping, assault, and destruction of property. Even the children, alienated victims in this whole ruckus, are devious and opportunistic beyond their years and, in the case of one of them, entrapping his sexual predator, terrifying. If the point of Maxwell's scathing satire is that everybody in corrupted America is corrupt, then it's the kind of funny idea that loses steam as your sympathy for the characters dwindles over the course of the play. Start to pull for someone, anyone, and they perform some irredeemably heinous act.
Still, it's a terrific showcase for the actors, and Maxwell's script is chock-full of excitingly playable scenes, well played. Bill Dawes (Alistair) and Cynthia Silver (Beverly) do a great job with parts they are too young for, and Nick Gregory and Kathryn A. Layng (right wingers Lewis and Melanie) have cartoonish fun in their devil's advocate roles (Layng's self-justifying, racist retelling of her getting a salesgirl fired is priceless). Rous and Greg Keller fare best, as Plath-ian 12-year old Sylvia and her imaginary friend Dick, whose incarnation shape-shifts to accommodate Sylvia's varying needs. (Keller also plays Alex, the babysitting son of the right-wingers.)
But by the time Open House has digressed into a kidnapping caper, (our Red State-ers LITERALLY holding our Blue State-ers captive), playwright Maxwell has written himself into a corner, and a wrap-it-up combination of illegal fireworks and threats of slander and perjury bring us to the unsatisfying conclusion of this tale. And when we finally see the display that caused this entire moral collapse, it appears rinky-dink and petty. Better to have left it to our imaginations; otherwise, you feel that, well, none of this would have happened had calmer heads, with less blackened hearts, prevailed. Perhaps that's Maxwell's point.