Regional Reviews: Boston
That Time the House Burned Down
If you meet the Patterson children, Sonny and Daughtery, you might be surprised at their certainty that storks delivered them as babies. In fact, this isn't the only white lie their mother tells them. According to Mommy, Mrs. Santa Claus is in charge of the baby-delivery storks. She says the tooth fairy steals a child's good teeth if they don't surrender the lost ones. And she assures Daughtery, who's always asking questions, that they have different skin colors because God made them diverse, "like a bag of M&Ms."
MJ Halberstadt's That Time the House Burned Down is a corrosive coming-of-age story, an evening that allows us to laugh and cringe at these little fictions we tell our loved ones. With this family of four, all speaking around each other, the play feels like an Edward Albee one-act taken over by Pixar. Mommy and Daddy desperately try to keep Sonny and Daughtery from learning they're the A-word (psstadopted!): they dodge the question and give in to anything the kids want. The play's delightful hook is that we see the Pattersons through two key witnesses: Daughtery's favorite doll Karma, who can move and speak, and the spirit of the family pets. All five of them.
The pets are our narrator, performed by a game Noah Simes (cryptically listed as "And a Half" in the program), who welcomes us into the funhouse. Much of the action takes place in the house's toy room, teeming with childhood games and stuffed animals, and of course Karma and the pet-of-the-week. With the use of handheld puppets, designed by Marc Ewart, Simes finds a new voice and personality in each pet from Goldie, a short-lived goldfish, to their bearded dragon Iggy. Karma recruits the pets in a quest to find what Mommy and Daddy are hiding in the house. The answer isn't necessarily surprising. But Halberstadt seems more concerned with the idiosyncrasies of a typical family, how the walls can build over the years until it's almost too late to remove them. The house burning down is all that can bring catharsis.
Halberstadt wryly captures the fault lines that widen every time Daddy chooses not to speak up, every time Sonny feels neglected by his sister, and every time Mommy invents a new tale about Santa Claus. In spite of a few clunky jokes here and there, there's a sweetness to this dark little comedy. Every time the Pattersons send their latest pet to his unfortunate death, it's mischievous instead of gruesome. And these moments are also touching. As his spirit moves from goldfish to hamster, parrot to tortoise, our pet narrator expresses a growing existential anguish, unsure how or if he will come back. He and Karma are part of the family for a time, but as they learn, pets die and toys inevitably are forgotten.
Fresh Ink Theatre Company, which developed the play through staged readings and workshops to the current full production, provides an intimate venue for Halberstadt's play. Ryan Bates's toy room set seems deliberately not literal: a sandbox and hanging swings indoors, string curtains covered in stuffed animals. It makes sense that these parents overfilled the toy room, trying to preserve some idealized childhood for their adopted kids. And the play itself is stuffed with old-school pop culture references, from those overpriced American Girl dolls to a key plot thread hinging on Pokémon.
Of the cast, Simes seems to match Halberstadt's irreverence the best. I also enjoyed Ally Dawson and Marc Pierre as kids on the cusp of maturity, slowly growing aware of everything they've been shielded from. And director Stephanie LeBolt keeps the humor coming while leaving room for the hurt that bubbles beneath. We can try so hard to sweep the mess away, but it all comes back eventually.
That Time the House Burned Down is presented by Fresh Ink Theatre Company through April 23, 2016, at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02215. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at freshinktheatre.org, or by phone at 866-811-4111.