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The Open House

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Open House
Peter Friedman, Danny McCarthy, Michael Countryman, Hannah Bos, and Carolyn McCormick.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ever since hitting the scene in 2005, Will Eno has been asking one question with his plays: Does anyone belong anywhere? All of his characters have struggled with this, trying to find amid the emotional wreckage of their lives some beacon of stability that will guide them to whatever their ultimate destination is — not that discovering that is easy, given how likely they are to be tripped up by their own inertia. Eno continues his exploration of this matter, and of the limits of audience patience, in his new play, The Open House, which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Similar to its predecessors in Eno’s oeuvre, The Open House posits that a parcel of land can have a powerful impact on its inhabitants — in this case, the members of an aging family facing the sale of their longtime home now that the kids are gone and Dad is infirm. And certainly the subject’s underlying seriousness would suggest at least somewhat meaty potential, even if it’s overlaid with Eno’s typical absurdist bend.

No. As with his previous plays, Eno cares less about telling a theatrical story than in presenting a theatrical style that engages the audience in full defiance of common sense. This kind of thing, comprising circuitous sentences, half-finished thoughts pasted onto other half-finished thoughts to create one incomprehensible thought, and the intentional subversion of cliché expectations worked in Eno’s first play, Thom Pain (based on nothing), because that was about a man who was trapped inside of himself while trying to expose his soul to the world. The disconnect worked because it articulated its hero’s deepest personality — the laughs this inspired were incidental.

But no play since has had that excuse, and Eno’s insistence on deploying this technique every time at bat, often with barely noticeable variations, results in stage shows that sound like nothing and feel like even less. (Middletown, from 2010, was a fatalistic spin on Thornton Wilder, 2012’s Title and Deed a straight-up Thom Pain retread.) The Open House feels particularly strained trying to live up to Eno’s wink-wink attitudinizing, given that none of its characters is established as someone from whom that would believably emerge.

Father (Peter Friedman), Mother (Carolyn McCormick), the Son (Danny McCarthy), the Daughter (Hannah Bos), and the Uncle (Michael Countryman) are ordinary, simple people for whom life and the pleasures of standard-issue togetherness are their own reward. They’re not stupid — they’re easily contented. But you’d never know that from the way they talk. For example:

Daughter: Does anyone want anything? Coffee or anything?
Mother: I should be offering you a cup of coffee.
[She doesn’t move.]
Daughter: So is there some? ... Is there any already made?
Mother: Your father and I stopped drinking it.

Or:

Father: Now, what were you going on about?
Son (displaying no emotion): I just said, “She’s gone.”
Mother: Okay, but you don’t have to get angry.

Or:

Father: What’s the matter — cat let go of your tongue? What’s the matter — cat got your tongue?
Uncle: I was, no, I was trying to say something positive.
Father: Just try to keep your tongue away from the cat, okay?

These exchanges, all of which occur in the first ten minutes (and are followed with plenty more), drip with the voice of the playwright rather than individual souls in search of expression: It’s writing that’s disinterested in defining people with whom we can (or should) connect, and that commands you to take no one you’re watching seriously. In Thom Pain, doing exactly this let Eno paint a larger picture of personal and societal ennui that had distinct dramatic payoffs; that firmer foundation does not exist here.

Eno attempts to manufacture a substitute by slowly replacing each member of the family with someone new (played by the same actor) who reflects an aspect of the house’s future to come: the real estate agent (Bos), landscaper-painter Tom (McCarthy), and so on. But because the initial characters aren’t fleshed out to begin with, there’s nothing to lose — and nothing to gain — by them vanishing forever. Even if you accept, as seems to be the intent, that the switch-up is occurring because Father is losing what’s left of his mind, it plays like only the contrived construct it is.

As a result, there’s not much for anyone to play, aside from a vague, deer-in-the-headlights spaciness early on and a more encouraging, if not more effective, laissez-faire sunniness later. For what it’s worth, Friedman thoroughly convinces as a dazed man who sits in a wheelchair for over an hour — there’s just not much else for him to do. And director Oliver Butler has staged things as well as he could, but aside from maintaining an atmosphere of nitrous-oxide indifference and presiding over a few unremarkable exits and entrances, his avenues have been severely limited as well.

Let’s not blame Butler, though: There is, after all, only so much you can do without real people speaking real thoughts and exhibiting real behavior. Existentialist joke machines only go so far, and then only if they provide vital connective threads to the tapestry of the play that contains them; just as not every house is right for every family, not every gimmick is right for every character. Eno has proven his masterful facility at honing and polishing to a glimmering sheen those elements when they organically occur. Now he needs to learn how to proceed on the — possibly many — occasions when, as with The Open House, they don’t.


The Open House
Through March 23
Signature Theatre Company's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues
Tickets and performance schedule at www.signaturetheatre.org