Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Our House


By Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Michael Mayer. Playwrights Horizons. (CLOSED)

Theresa Rebeck's Our House alternates between scenes at a television network and a house in St. Louis where roommates squabble about television and rent. The critical consensus is that while entertaining, it doesn't provide any new insights. Critics frequently refer to past films and television shows that had greater success at satirizing these topics, including Network and 30 Rock). Still, critics appreciate the sleek production, especially the set by Derek McLane and costumes by Susan Hilferty. They are mixed on the direction, with more than one critic complaining that Mayer directs everyone to scream.

American Theater Web A
(Andy Propst) Director Michael Mayer gives the piece a beautifully calibrated staging and has elicited a host of delectable performances from the ensemble. Alongside Welch's frighteningly flamboyant portrayal of Wes, Baccarin turns in a marvelously intelligent turn as the not always terribly bright (her mispronunciation of "Shiite" is a running joke), but certainly shrewd, burgeoning news diva. Kunken's imbues Stu with a weak-willed earnestness that makes the character almost pitiable and Strong, employing a nasal, sing-songiness, turns in captivatingly edgy performance as the TV-addicted Merv.

Associated Press A-
(Michael Kuchwara) Director Michael Mayer, aided by Derek McLane's mobile, split-stage settings, has done an excellent job separating the worlds of big-time television higher-ups and a shabby living room where the hostage drama takes place. The pace of the show is unrelenting. But then so is Rebeck's fast, often furious dialogue, whether she is aiming for a laugh or something more serious. That voice of reason — or at least some semblance of morality — is provided by Stephen Kunken. He portrays a broadcast assistant with a conscience. It's a lonely job in this dark, disturbing and surprisingly effective comedy.

CurtainUp B
(Elyse Sommer) Rebeck uses a well known behind-the-tube relationship between a network executive and a reporter/reality show hostess to jump start her focus on the reality show craze that has exacerbated TV's continued downward spiral. Being a writer savvy enough to thrive in the fiercely competitive world of television and also nurture her voice as a theater playwright, she has managed to make it all slickly entertaining. Her characters are so broadly drawn that we can laugh even though TV's dumbing down effect on the populace (from the big chiefs on down) is no laughing matter. Playwrights Horizon has supported her work with a nifty production, stylishly helmed by Michael Mayer... The shifts between the two environments are interspersed with snippets of Jennifer's broadcasts, each one in a new and more show-biz-y outfit (a round of applause to costumer Susan Hilferty). When the Network and St. Louis stories finally and inevitably do collide, its explosive and even more in a super-heightened mode of exaggeration as everything that has gone before. Ultimately, Our House, like the medium it satirizes ends up offering up chuckles rather than any stunning new insights.

Bloomberg News B-
(John Simon) At her second-best, which this is, Rebeck can still be amusing. I love a line like Wes’s “I’d like to feed Anderson Cooper to the Israelis, they’d know what to do with him.” But much of the play is merely bricolage. Unquestionably good are Derek McLane’s acerbic set design and Susan Hilferty’s extravagant outfits for Jennifer. Michael Mayer has directed effectively, and there are telling performances from Stephen Kunken (a beleaguered Stu), Jeremy Strong (an odious Merv) and toothsome Morena Baccarin (a Brazilian-born spitfire) as Jennifer. Christopher Evan Welch is one of our best comic actors, and his Wes is a wonderfully larger-than-life, monstrously funny, sinister clown.

Newsday B-
(Linda Winer) Director Michael Mayer ("Spring Awakening") finds the craven glee in what the network mogul (a deliriously shifty Christopher Evan Welch) calls "synchronicity." World views flip easily between scenes with his scarily erotic/robotic anchor star (the creepily perfect Morena Baccarin) and scenes at a dowdy, middle-America house rented by four singles.

Time Out New York B-
(Adam Feldman) Michael Mayer’s production at Playwrights Horizons strikes me as the best possible version of Rebeck’s vaguely Foucauldian fantasy. Derek McClane’s bipartite set perfectly renders the play’s two overlapping worlds: the ice-gray slickness of SBS and the brown-toned hominess of a St. Louis house shared by four mismatched roommates. (They are not on a reality show themselves, but might as well be; their main conflict involves which of the group should be kicked out.) Principal in this group is the sociopathic, television-obsessed Merv, played with extraordinary loser charisma by Jeremy Strong, in an indelible performance. You only wish that Rebeck had given everyone more substance to work with.

New York Post C+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) But Rebeck and director Michael Mayer don't pack enough punch to help us overlook the material's familiarity. When Jennifer finally meets Merv, their showdown lands way beyond the outer reaches of believability. Worse, it feels flat. Tension and humor balance best in the less message-laden scenes among the roommates. When one of them, Alice, blows a gasket during a house meeting, Katie Kreisler hits her comic marks in a brilliant display of wounded self-righteousness and helpless rage. Rebeck may not have trusted this foolishness to carry the whole show, but here it makes for much more drama than TV's contrived shenanigans.

The Village Voice C+
(Michael Feingold) As in the crowded coziness of the St. Louis house, the goings-on in Wes's palatial but barren office (it has only one chair—his) raise questions of believability that displace the ethical ones Rebeck wants to raise. With Wes and Jennifer's affair being the talk of the chat sites, you wonder why neither Wes's wife nor his board of directors interferes, why other network brass accept the situation so passively, why neither Wes nor Jennifer ever has a moment's qualm. The characters' sociopathy starts to look like the playwright's convenience. This last point ultimately undoes Rebeck. When violence, flaring up in the St. Louis house, finally lets her bring her two stories together, the results are all too pat, as if occurring in a comic-strip world where nothing's complicated and nothing matters very much... Even half-truths can shine, fortunately, when inhabited by performers with inner fire of the kind director Michael Mayer seems to have a knack for igniting in young actors. Welch and Kunken, artistic chameleons who are always reliable and always surprising, work subtle wonders here; Siegfried builds a full portrait from very few hints. Best of all are Strong and Kreisler: Mapping their contrasting manias like master geographers, they display between them enough bravura to steal this and a dozen other shows as well.

Lighting & Sound America C
(David Barbour) Equally well-cast is Morena Baccarin, as Jennifer, here rendered as an immaculately dressed and coiffed vacuum. (Thanks to Susan Hilferty's wickedly canny costumes, she really has the look; you could slip her into a CNN broadcast this very minute, without anyone being the wiser.) The director, Michael Mayer, has fun with a sequence in which Jennifer appears in increasingly fluffier outfits as her broadcasts shift from bombings in Iraq to pet tips and cocktail concepts. As Wes notes, "Staying informed in America is optional." The premise of Our House was apparently inspired by the hiring of Julie Chen -- once a CBS Morning News anchor and the second wife of network head Les Moonves -- to be the host of Big Brother. At the same time, there's nothing here that you can't find in, say, Paddy Chayevsky's screenplay for Network; in these days of 500 cable channels, Facebook, and Netflix, the idea of Americans living in mass slavery to the networks is pretty quaint. Rebeck seems not to have noticed the proliferation of 24-hour cable news channels on which issues are talked to death by news personalities engaged in rigid ideological battles. And what with Survivor now in its 18th season and Gail Collins weighing in on Jon and Kate Plus Eight on the Times Op-Ed page, reality programming is hardly the freshest target. Rebeck even paraphrases that quintessential dead white male, H. L Mencken, having Jennifer remark, "No one's getting poor underestimating the intelligence of the American audience.'"

Theatermania C-
(Sandy MacDonald) How the two worlds merge is best left unsaid in the interest of surprise. However, the insertion of an intermission hints at the rift between acts one and two, and the challenge that Rebeck has set herself in trying to bridge farce and tragedy isn't fully met. As the play continues, Wes continues on his trajectory of heedless megalomania, with news division head Stu (a wry, Dick Cavett-like Stephen Kunken) attempting in vain to make him hear reason. Their arguments over the sacred -- and indeed, FCC-mandated -- duty of keeping the public informed are the juiciest and funniest segment of the play. However, despite the uniformly superb work of the cast (which includes Mandy Siegried and Haynes Thigpen), the characters can feel cartoonish. And the crisis that comes to take center stage feels sensationalist -- which, of course, is how Wes chooses to play it. The audience, however, may succumb to a sense of Law & Order déjà vu (and vu and vu), ultimately undercutting the drama's impact.

Talkin' Broadway D+
(Matthew Murray) It doesn’t matter much that Mayer’s production is slick, sexy, and fast-moving, refocusing seamlessly across Derek McLane’s bifurcated set to probe both the network’s New York home and that of Merv and his buddies in St. Louis. Nor does it matter that the acting, with the exceptions of the performers playing Merv’s roommates (who tend to oversell their very brief moments at the center of the action), is largely enticing: Baccarin is a vivacious presence, and kicks up some sexual and comic heat with Welch; Strong is a fine fit for his unmotivated slob; and Stephen Kunken suavely rounds out the cast as the cunningly hapless news division president Wes is too happy to steamroll. What does matter is that Our House, despite its clarity and intelligence, is of and about a time that’s past, though it behaves as if it’s set in the present. When Big Brother and Survivor were just igniting the reality TV craze, when movies about live-video ubiquity like The Truman Show and EdTV seemed slightly more fantasy than documentary, and when more people cared who said what and when on the news, this all might have seemed like an important breaking story.

The New York Times D-
(Charles Isherwood) Granted, it is not easy to parody the circus of self-display and self-humiliation that so much of the bottom-feeder fare on television has become. But Ms. Rebeck’s barbs often feel blunt, and the bifurcated plot, switching between Wes’s world and Merv’s, makes it hard for the director, Michael Mayer, to generate much comic energy. Ditzy, ambitious female newscasters are hardly new targets (Jennifer mispronounces “Shiite” and has a hissy fit over the selection of sweaters she is offered); Nicole Kidman played a similar stunner on the make with a microphone in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” more than a decade ago. No more novel are soulless Hollywood executives who scream expletives, slam phones and toss around pink slips as if they were confetti. Wes is a more bilious, less funny version of the preening egoist played by Alec Baldwin on the brilliant “30 Rock.”

Variety D-
(David Rooney) There's a central shock element here that causes the two storylines to collide, but it's a surprise chiefly because the playwright has failed to credibly seed the development anyplace in character or plot. Elsewhere, audiences will be a step or two ahead of the predictable action, particularly the cynical machinations of Wes, who remains a one-note Gordon Gekko of television, regardless of any twitchy idiosyncrasies Welch attempts to bring to the role. (Are we really still making the same old jokes about the suits' loathing of writers?) Other key characters are similarly shallow and more inconsistent: Merv's transition from ranting slacker to deranged media savant ("Night is falling on our planet," he decrees) is as unconvincing as Jennifer's sudden opportunistic smarts when she takes control of an explosive situation... The playwright can do better, as can Playwrights Horizons. Plays like "Our House," and recent presentations from Craig Lucas, Sarah Ruhl and Nicky Silver, suggest the Off Broadway nonprofit should channel its support for contemporary American dramatists into shepherding new talent, not producing second-rate work from established scribes.

Backstage F+
(David Sheward) The setup is an obvious lampoon of the relationship of CBS president and CEO Les Moonves and his wife, CBS News reporter Julie Chen, whose status as a serious journalist was called into question when she started hosting the reality show Big Brother—a situation Rebeck uses to examine the blurring line between TV news and entertainment. A worthy topic and a fair-enough starting point, but Rebeck soon loses her way, going so far over the top that the play resembles an overlong comedy sketch rather than a seriously funny critique of modern American culture. Paddy Chayefsky handled the same theme with much greater dexterity in the film Network more than 30 years ago. We are now living in the funhouse world envisioned by Chayefsky, whose mad-prophet newsman told us all to get as mad as hell (Glenn Beck, anyone?), and Rebeck's comic takeoff comes across as silly slapstick.

Wall Street Journal F+
(Terry Teachout) What follows is a minor miracle of mediocrity, a play in which no one says or does anything unpredictable. Ms. Rebeck has spent much of her career working as a TV writer and producer, and it appears that she learned her lessons too well.

The New Yorker F
(Unsigned) Sadly, Rebeck, who owes more than just her prolificacy to the years she spent writing for TV crime dramas, can’t quite bring herself to bite the hand that’s fed her, loading the play—like a “Law & Order” episode—with so many eleventh-hour plot and tone reversals that she almost gets away with not having fresh insight into such well-trod satirical territory. Ironically, the whole thing—with its nakedly formulaic plotting and cast of talking heads—plays like a slapdash telefilm, but, unfortunately for the audience, they can’t change the channel.

The Bergen Record F-
(Robert Feldberg) The world doesn’t need a warmed-over satire about TV that’s not only very old news — the play trips over its own whiskers — but has been eclipsed by the medium’s clueless self-satire. Rebeck is shocked — shocked! — at what’s happened to the television industry. Did you realize TV executives will do almost anything to get high ratings? And, in that pursuit, they’ve blurred the line between entertainment and news?... If you’re unable to comprehend why all this matters, Rebeck has a character explain it, with heavy verbal underlining. Is anything more irritating than being instructed in the obvious?

The Daily News F-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Shrill, outdated and often illogical, the Playwrights Horizons production at times made me want to shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” One such moment came during a particularly credibility-stretching interview by a reporter hellbent on exploiting a crime to boost her career.
The play has two main plots. Each is filled with characters drawn with tracing paper and Magic Markers — no fine-line details to be found here... Direction by the usually solid Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “Everyday Rapture”) seems to be simply: Talk really loud. The whole cast does.

American Theater Web A 13; AP A- 12; CurtainUp B 10; Bloomberg News B- 9; Newsday B- 9; TONY B- 9; New York Post C+ 8; The Village Voice C+ 8; Lighting & Sound America C 7; Theatermania C- 6; Talkin' Broadway D+ 5; The New York Times D- 3; Variety D- 3; Backstage F+ 2; Wall Street Journal F+ 2; The New Yorker F 1; The Bergen Record F- 0; The Daily News F- 0; TOTAL: 107/18 = 5.94 (C-)

1 comment:

Amanda Cooper said...

ya know, I liked this one! I would personally give it a B+ or so -- kept me interested, thinking afterward, I agree the last story shift wasn't needed/good - and just because it's not a new story/ new take on something doesn't mean it's not good.