March 22, 2014

"The Open House" Is Underfurnished

After years of seeing dramas about dysfunctional families, I’d begun to wonder if it was even possible for there to be a good play about a happy family. So I suppose I should have been happy to see The Open House, the Will Eno play that is entering its final week in The Linney space at The Pershing Square Signature Center. 

The central family in The Open House is as wretched as you'll find in any other play but Eno literally (and I mean this in the dictionary sense of the word) replaces this screwed up crew with a smugly contented clan right before the audience’s eyes.  And yet his play just made me grumpy.

It opens with a family of five—an unnamed mom, dad, their grown son and daughter and the father’s brother—uncomfortably gathered in the family’s modest living room. They’re supposed to be celebrating the mother and father’s anniversary and the fact that the father, although wheelchair bound, has survived a recent stroke. Instead, he just tears into them all with one venomous—but admittedly funny—put-down after another. 
Eventually, they all leave and gradually their places are filled by a chirpy realtor, her complacent clients and a contractor who arrive to inspect the house that the dad has secretly put up for sale.  Then, after about 75 minutes, the play ends.
And that seems good enough for many critics who consider Eno heir apparent to the cool existentialism of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood almost single-handedly put Eno on the map with a review of the 2004 play Thom Pain (based on nothing)  that proclaimed the young playwright “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”  
Awards committees have drunk the Kool-Aid too.  Thom Pain was a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer. But having now seen three Eno plays—Middletown, which played down at the Vineyard Theatre in 2010, Title and Deed, which had a run at Signature two years ago, and now The Open House— 
I still don’t haven’t been able to develop a taste for him.
At the end of a play by Beckett, Pinter or Albee, I usually feel something for the people I’ve just seen onstage, even if I don’t fully understand everything that’s happened to them. But Eno hasn't made me give a damn about any of the people in his plays, including this one.  
So I don’t blame my disappointment with The Open House on its director Oliver Butler who squeezes as much entertainment as he can out of its spare text.  Nor do I blame the cast, who, lead by the always-fine Peter Friedman in the dad role, are deadpan perfect and seem to be enjoying themselves. Maybe too much: what appeared to be an ad lib broke two members of the cast up the night I saw the show.  

The problem is that Eno, who apparently wants to strip bare the artifices of the traditional genres that have sustained theater over the past century, goes so far with his deconstructions that too little remains to care about. It's all mind games and meta-theatrics without much heart.
He’s been down this road before. Middletown starts off by paying homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and then turns around and kicks it in the ass. And The Open House attempts to do the same to every family tragedy from Oedipus Tyrannus to August: Osage County.

Now Eno is headed to Broadway. His four-hander The Realistic Jones, with August’s Tracy Letts in one of the roles (so he clearly holds no grudge) is scheduled to open at the Lyceum Theatre next month.   

Isherwood, who saw the 2012 production at the Yale Repertory Theater, swears it’s the best thing Eno has ever done.  Ever a theater optimist, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.    

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