I have to admit that I came to THE OPEN HOUSE as one who had never read or seen a Will Eno play. Until three years ago, most of my theatergoing had been in London and Mr. Eno's work doesn't seem to have crossed the pond yet. Right now he is represented in NEw York by THE OPEN HOUSE at the Signature and THE REALISTIC JONESES doing good business of Broadway, so he must be doing something right. On the basis of THE OPEN HOUSE, I am hard put to say what that "something" is. I found THE OPEN HOUSE to be funny in spots, but hollow--or was it that hollowness is the point? Is the play picking up where Edward Albee left off and giving us another version of the existential emptiness under our ideal of family. Another version of "Family is a fiction and ultimately we are alone."
We begin THE OPEN HOUSE with another of those dysfunctional families that are the raw material of so much classic American drama. There's a realistic living room that looks lived in. The clan has gathered to celebrate the parents' wedding anniversary. There's a grown son and daughter who don't seem to have anything much to say to each other, an uncle out of work and grieving over the loss of his wife, a mother who seems totally disconnected from what is happening around her and can only speak in platitudes and a particularly nasty wheelchair-bound patriarch. Father (no one has names here) has suffered a stroke and has heart problems, but can summon up the energy to lash out at every member of the family who is present (one son has stayed away). He despises them all and seems to despise his wife. Father's attacks are cruel, but funny, fortunately. His children ask why their family can't be a normal loving clan, but perhaps the generic names suggest that they are just that. Love, is withheld here or perhaps non-existent. Even the dog has run off from this alienating domestic scene. This picture of family life goes on a bit too long and is more nasty sitcom than Albee, sort of a "Mama's Family" without the accents. Then things get surreal. One by one, family members leave to be replaced by other characters played by the same actors. A real estate agent comes to prepare the house for an Open House that afternoon. Father didn't tell anyone that he has put the house on the market (he has announced that he has written his children out of his will). A handyman with a drug problem comes to check out necessary renovations and starts pulling the wallpaper off the wall to see what's underneath. A prospective buyer and his wife come in and look around. Left without his family to attack, Father becomes increasingly disoriented, has a heart attack and is taken out in an ambulance. He no longer rules his own house. At the end of the play, a new set of characters, played by the same actors, have taken over the house. They seem like pleasant, well-meaning, vacuous, people, an improvement over the family that has departed. Bad thing happen in THE OPEN HOUSE. The daughter has an automobile accident and has to be taken to the hospital. The father has a heart attack. Life goes on.
What does all this add up to? Our greatest playwrights have told us that American families do not live up to the ideal we have set for family. Does Eno's play add anything to the mix? There's some hint in the title. The focus of the play is the house that can move from family to family. It has a history -- there's other wallpaper behind the current covering. It can be changed, renovated. The history is ongoing. The new owners seen to be nice, loving people with two sons they care for. Perhaps all the games that stuff the living room closet, mementos of family togetherness, will be used again. Still with then humor, the easy, funny nasty barbs, there's a twenty-first century hip cynicism, an avoidance of facing big emotions head on. Hatred, lovelessness are merely to be laughed at. I'm not crazy about O'Neill's lumbering, overlong, repetitive sagas, but there's a passion there, a realization that there are real feelings under the barbs. Eno is detached and we are detached from and superior to his characters. It's a cool perspective, in the sense of chilly, but I'm sure for many it is "cool" in the sense of "hip."
I couldn't fault the production, under Oliver Butler's direction. Peter Friedman's timing of the father's barbs is masterful and Carolyn McCormick is properly spaced out as his wife. Hannah Bos brings just the right amount of impersonal bonhomie to the realtor and Danny McCarthy is appropriately mercuric as the handyman who keeps going out to his truck for self-medication of various kinds. It's an excellent ensemble.
I found THE OPEN HOUSE enjoyable but troubling, more for playwright's point of view than for what happens on stage. I'm eager to see THE REALISTIC JONESES to discover more about Will Eno's work.
THE OPEN HOUSE. Pershing Square Signature Center, March 18, 2014.