Also see Bob's review of Argonautika
Manley Carstairs, an untalented, pretentious, reclusive, self-published middle-aged novelist, has lived at home with his rich, domineering mother until her recent death. Newly alone, he has hired a housekeeper to clean and cook for him. We find Manley at home on the fourth day of his employment of the appalling Annie Dankworth who has taken the housekeeping job with the intention of landing Manley. Annie, who is dressed in a comically short variation of a maid's uniform, can't cook, won't clean, and flounces about praising her own physical attributes. Her endless, inane chatter make it impossible for Manley to write. When Manley dismisses her, Annie refuses to leave. She insists that she has neither resources nor anywhere to go. When Manley threatens to go call the police, Annie dissuades him by threatening to tell the police that she had to protect her virginity from his sexual assault.
So far so bad. This Annie is annoyingly stupid. Her conversion, spoken both to Manley and directly to the audience (both characters speak directly to us in the early going), is filled with nonsense about having been born rich and having attended finishing school ("the cream de la cream"). At one moment, she claims that she is a woman of means who is only working to be of help. This Annie would not have lasted one day on this job. That the cloistered Manley does not complete his call to the police and throw the baggage out at the moment of her horrid and most unfunny threat is inexplicable and disturbing. At the end of the first act, it is dinnertime and Annie enters in a stylish red dress, reading a copy of Good Housekeeping. Manley and Annie verbally attack each other. Losing control, Manley chases Annie about the room trying to throttle her. They trip over a sofa, Manley falling onto the sofa on top of Annie. Annie firmly presses Manley to her and passionately kisses him. End of act one.
Wait! Do not rush out of theatre and escape home, no matter how great the temptation. Astonishingly, the second act is a very funny, warm and appealing entertainment. It seems that the newly donned red dress has added about 100 points to Annie's I.Q. There is nothing in James Prideaux's script to explain the new Annie, and his play is desperately in need of a new first act, placing more of the blame for Manley and Annie's feuding on Manley's reclusive stuffiness and turning Annie into something approaching a sympathetic, believable presence. Shocked by his attack on Annie and convinced that he has shamefully forced their passionate embrace, Manley has prepared dinner for them with the entree being the gourmet dish that he had foolishly expected her to prepare that night.
Each has quirkily sad and funny back stories and secrets which are revealed throughout the second act. Manley's secrets account for why he would think that he had acted in a beastly fashion as well as why he would want to believe it. Author James Prideaux, whose occasional good lines in the first act are buried in the general morass, manages to gracefully and fluidly tell us why Manley came to believe that he was a talented writer sacrificing his opportunities for love and marriage to devote himself to something which he does so badly. Although lacking the satisfying psychological underpinnings of Manley's story, Annie's sad tale of wanting to escape a demimonde existence is nicely written.
The major set piece of the second act is an extended scene in which Annie helps Manley to realize the gosh awfulness of his prose, and then guides him to use his true emotions and experience to write something better than anything he has ever written before (without it being so good that the audience cannot get laughs from it). Director Jim Peskin captures all the humor and nuance of character contained in the second act of The Housekeeper.
The Housekeeper is the kind of summer stock entertainment that years ago would have provided a renewable and comfortable source of income for a married pair of middle-aged actors of some reputation. Fittingly enough, its roles are now in the capable hands of the delightful and talented husband and wife team of Bev Sheehan, artistic director of the What Exit? Company and a stalwart on New Jersey stages, and her husband Brian Corrigan, whose principal acting chores have been voice-overs for television commercials (if the latter is incorrect, it is Corrigan's jocular and modest program bio that is to blame).
Brian Corrigan is a strong and believable presence throughout, even when his assigned behaviors are not. It takes a little too long for the audience to learn that he is not the successful writer that he appears to be at the first, but that is the playwright's fault. After all, Manley is convinced of his greatness until well into the second act. Corrigan very nicely conveys the depth and pathos which his role eventually contains.
Frankly, it is difficult to tell to what extent Bev Sheehan and director Jim Peskin may have been able to ameliorate Prideaux's first act failings. Bev Sheehan is an adorable and delightful comic actress, and she delightfully hits her stride in the second act. Still, it may be a mistake to play the first act Annie in as silly a manner as the role is written. Although the situation is farcical and infuriating, a more naturalistic, sadder approach to Annie might work better. This would certainly be more in keeping with the wholly delightful Annie that Sheehan, Peskin and Prideaux deliver in act two. I especially was taken with Sheehan's delivery of Annie's response to Manley's anger after she mocks his writing, "he can dish it out, but he can't take it. If you can't take it, don't dish it out."
In a particularly felicitous moment in The Housekeeper, Annie says to Manley, "Let's write a long story together," and we unmistakably know that she is not just referring to a literary effort.
The Housekeeper continues performances (Fri. and Sat. 8 pm/ Sun. 3 pm) through April 13, 2008 at the What Exit? Theatre Company in the Burgdorff Cultural Center, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood, NJ 07040. Box Office: 973-763-4029. on-line: www.whatexittheatre.com.
The Housekeeper by James Prideaux; directed by Jim Peskin