June 10, 2009

There's No One Home at "Our House"

Does where you sit affect the show you see? I don’t mean if you’re sitting behind a pole or a tall guy or a woman with a bouffant and you can’t see anything. But whether you experience a show differently if you’re sitting in the balcony, in a center aisle seat, or in the front row. I didn’t have much of a choice when I called to buy tickets for my pal Bill and me to see a preview performance of Our House, the new play by Theresa Rebeck that opened at Playwrights Horizons last night. Rebeck is popular and the Telecharge guy said all he had left were seats in the front row. So we took them.

When I was a kid, I thought first row orchestra seats must be the best seats because they were, well, first. I’ve learned better over the years (like when my husband K and I sat damp and shivering as the steady rain shower in the otherwise terrific 1994 revival of An Inspector Calls splashed on us and the other poor souls in the front row) and so I usually avoid front row seats. But, like I said, I had no choice for Our House. As it turns out, I found it fascinating to watch the actors at such close range—to see which ones were truly listening to the dialog and which were just waiting for their time to speak. And I'm going on and on about this because that exercise proved to be far more interesting than the play itself.

Our House cobbles together two story lines to offer a satirical look at the blurring line between TV’s news and reality shows. The first centers on an ambitious reporter and her lust for fame. The second involves a group of graduate students sharing a house in St. Louis and dealing with a deadbeat roommate who is obsessed with TV. The stories appear to have nothing to do with one another until a totally unbelievable incident brings them together.

Rebeck has written scripts for shows like “L.A. Law”, “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order” and judging from this play, she appears to have personal grievances to settle. But aside from some thinly veiled and gratuitously mean-spirted jabs at CBS head Les Moonves and his wife, the reporter Julie Chen, Rebeck doesn’t have much fresh to say. She doesn’t give her actors much to play either. The characters are one-dimensional, the dialog equally flat, the jokes predictable. Director Michael Mayer and the actors do what they can but as my Grandma used to say, you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.

After the show, Bill and I ran into actor friends of his in the lobby. The wife rolled her eyes in exasperation. “If you can’t say it better than ‘Network,’” she said, referring to the great Paddy Chayefsky’s classic 1976 movie about the news business, “then why bother saying it again?” Good question. Because Rebeck is a talented woman. Her play Omnium Gatherum was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2003. She’s smart too. She has a Ph.D. from Brandeis. And she and I share a love of living in New York, a love of the theater and a love of Marian Seldes. Just try not to like Rebeck after reading the Q&A New York Magazine did with her (click here to check it out).

But I fear that Rebeck’s long years in TV have gotten her too used to churning out material. Over the last five years, she’s turned out at least six plays, a novel, a bunch of magazine pieces and op-ed articles, occasional blogs for Huffington Post, and reportedly has been working on the book for a musical version of Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella movie “Ever After.” Maybe she just didn’t have the time to furnish this play with any real substance or original insight. Because no matter where you sit, there’s not enough in Our House to make it a home worth visiting.


rzoglin said...

Thanks for warning me away from this one.
(Since Jan edited my stuff at Time Magazine, I always assume she knows more than I do.)
Great blog.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Richard, thanks for the flattering shout-out!