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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

In This House: A Moving and Insightful World Premiere Musical

Also see Bob's review of Summer in Sanctuary

Jeff Kready and Margo Seibert
Two River Theatre Company is in the midst of an extraordinary season in which it is not only providing exceptional work for its own audience, but is also nurturing and developing new works which will likely make an impact on the American theatre for years to come. This observation is inspired by its current production, the world premiere of a new chamber musical, In This House (music by Mike Reid, lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger, and book by Jonathan Bernstein and Schlesinger and Reid) in its smaller developmental venue, the Marion Huber, a black box theatre which is reconfigured for each production. Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, an imaginative, thought provoking comedy by emerging playwright Madeleine George, premiered here earlier this season.

In This House is small in size, but one would be hard pressed to find another new musical that delivers as much in intelligence, beauty and value. Although there is still work to be done by its talented creators, as it already stands, In This House is recommended without reservation to all who appreciate substance in their musical theatre.

The design of the musical is simple. It is New Year's Eve at a farmhouse in rural Virginia. Here we will be spending the evening with two couples: an elderly farmer and his wife; and a young, possibly shortly to marry, couple who happen upon the house after their car was disabled as a result of having slid into a ditch.

The elderly farmer Henry Arden and his wife Luisa are tending to the decaying farmhouse in rural Virginia where they have lived together most of their lives. There is tension between them. Henry wants Luisa to walk with him. She declines, " ... I'll just sort through a few things in the kitchen," and Henry responds, "Another night with each of us in our own corners, that's how you want it."

The young couple are Johnny D'Amato, who, dominated by his father, has given up his ambition to pursue a career as a writer to become a third generation police officer, and Annie Friedkin, a restless free spirit, who flies around the world as a rescue worker in the wake of natural disasters. Before their car was disabled, Johnny had picked up Annie at the airport upon her return from a rescue mission in Jakarta.

In its early stages, In This House feels static and uninvolving. My growing sense of a lack of variety in the sere chamber music arrangements (cello, reeds, violin and piano) certainly contributed to this impression.

About a third of the way into this musical, almost imperceptibly, I found myself being drawn into its nuanced, finely drawn portrayal of the lives and relationships of believable, multidimensional individuals with dreams, problems and limitations to which one easily could relate. Even more surprisingly, part and parcel of this shift was a raft of solidly integrated songs with superb lyrics, which range from the dramatically intense to the high spirited and even humorous.

In order to sufficiently convey the high caliber of the songs, a sampling of the lyrics that Sarah Schlesinger has written to Mike Reid's music is in order.

Henry played semi-pro ball as a young man, and was hoping to get picked up by a professional team when Luisa, his girlfriend back home, let him know that she was pregnant. Henry dutifully returned home to her and took over his family's farm. Singing "The Big Show," Henry conveys the joy of feeling on the cusp of being a successful baseball player:

Hey Batter, Batter
Have ya got the nerve?
Can ya hang in on a hangin' curve
Can you go for broke when the score is tied?
Have ya got the stuff for a head-first slide?
You're the last man up
And there's two men out
And we need that crownin' blow

I was just one pitch
Just one swing
I was just one hit
From headin' for the big show.

Put a quick, propulsive beat under the words "batter, batter" for a better idea of Mike Reid's rousing music for this song.

Soon after, Johnny sings and Annie describes in song Christmas at "Casa D'Amato." This song is delightfully filled with extremely funny images. If you like being with family, you will share Johnny's delight in talking about it. If you are not so inclined, you will sympathize with Annie's more jaundiced viewpoint. I can assure that you do not have to be Italian to recognize the D'Amatos (although having a big family might help):

Christmas lights flashing
Fake Reindeer are dashing
A new K-Mart manger
Adorns the front lawn

The carpets are fraying
Sinatra is playing

Walk in that door
And all sanity's gone

The unhappy start to Henry and Luisa's marriage set the seed for each of them to be unable to be emotionally supportive of the other when faced with the hard blows that life can deliver. It is clear that, if they marry, Johnny and Annie could easily go down the same road. Johnny's father has placed a down payment on a house for them across the street from his own. Unable to stand up to his father, Johnny hopelessly tries to sell the independent Annie on the idea. Although by far the lesser of their problems is the difference in their ethnicity, in "Some Other Woman", Annie conflates it into her telling Johnny that despite his protestations what he really wants is:

Someone with saints on her dresser
With beads and a Father confessor
She's of the faith - So G-d bless her
Clearly a creature who's heaven-sent

Someone who sings in her choir
And does what her in-laws require
Someone whose fondest desire
Is doing her best to be sure you're content

These three songs are followed by a dramatic powerhouse of a song, "What Kind of Man," in which the sweet, father-dominated Johnny contemplates what he might say to his father, and then to Annie, conveying the responses which he would expect to receive from each of them in their own words and intonations. His crushed reaction to his contemplation of the derision which he expects from his well-intentioned but hopelessly clueless and castrating father is devastating.

Henry and Luisa are at the end of their journey and it is too late for them to redeem all that has been lost between them, but they have come to an understanding of how they wasted their opportunity for happiness and fulfillment together. If Henry can convey what he has learned to Johnny, maybe, just maybe, Johnny and Annie will be able to build an emotionally secure and rewarding life together.

There is a depth in the portraits of the foursome that Bernstein, Schlesinger and Reid have drawn that is rare in our musical theatre in which character has to be developed in very few words. Particularly impressive is how this team has created a young couple who are clearly and exceedingly mismatched while implicitly demonstrating the needs that have attracted them to one another and could form the basis for a solid and emotionally rewarding relationship.

Chuck Cooper mellifluously remains at the top of his vocal mastery. With "The Wall," he brings the dignity and strength of his performance to Henry's simple, but so easily overlooked, powerful words to Johnny.

Performing in tandem with Cooper, Brenda Pressley gives us a muted, quietly dignified, vocally beautiful Luisa. It cannot be easy for the dynamo performer Pressley to sustain her muted performance so precisely throughout, but her interpretation is absolutely on target and necessary. Cooper and Pressley are deeply moving in their playing of the revelatory final scene.

Jeff Kready smoothly and convincingly reveals the crippling weakness of character that threatens the independence and maturation of the sweetly decent Johnny. Margo Seibert's strong, accurate performance captures Annie's fierce, strong-willed determination not to compromise her independence. When doubts do arise in Seibert's Annie, they appear to arouse her anger. Together, Kready and Seibert interact with appropriate sparks and dampers.

The Huber black box has been reconfigured to provide an almost square stage with seating on three sides. This particularly intimate conformation allows for all seats to be located within five rows of the stage. Director May Adrales has made excellent use of this set-up by creating a seemingly effortless flow and movement which plays unobtrusively to each of the three seating sections. Adrales has elicited excellent performances from her entire cast, and sustained proper moods throughout. The atmospheric details in need of clarification are in the script, not the direction.

The evocative and playable set has been designed by Lee Savage. Gina Scherr's lighting is necessarily muted, but never too dark or in any way problematic.

The ninety-minute one-act musical In This House is a work in progress that starts off statically and is insecure in its handling of some atmospheric details. However, at its considerable best, which it is throughout its entire final hour, In This House is a deeply moving and thought provoking musical which may well affect the outlook of many viewers on the quality of their closest relationships.

In This House continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday 7 pm; Thursday-Saturday 8pm/ Matinees Wednesday 1 pm; Saturday, Sunday 3 pm) through April 8, 2012, at the Two River Theatre Company, Marion Huber Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online:

In This House Music by Mike Reid; Lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger; Book by Jonathan Bernstein; directed by May Adrales

Henry Arden…………………Chuck Cooper
Luisa Arden……………….Brenda Pressley
Johnny D'Amato………………..Jeff Kready
Annie Friedkin……………….Margo Seibert

(N.B. Luisa Arden is now being played by Suzzanne Douglas. Brenda Pressley is returning to the role which she played in Nicky Silver's The Lyons at the Vineyard Theatre for its Broadway production.)

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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- Bob Rendell