Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The House of Yes"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


by Wendy MacLeod

directed by Courtney O’Connor

Jackie-O…..Helen McElwain
Anthony…..Ron Rittinger
Mrs. Pascal…..Kippy Goldfarb
Marty…..Shawn Sturnick
Lesly…..Tanya Anderson / Stephanie Biernbaum (6/20-22)

You may groan at my latest scribbles and say, “Why should I go see yet another play about yet another dysfunctional family?” Answer: because Wendy MacLeod’s THE HOUSE OF YES is a good, tartly-written one and the Coyote Theatre has given it a near-ideal production. That’s why.

The play’s action takes place in the Pascal family house in McLean, Virginia, some twenty years after the JFK assassination. The family consists of socialite Mrs. Pascal and her grown children – one daughter and two sons. The daughter, high strung and eccentric, goes by the nickname “Jackie-O”, after her role model – the former First Lady. She is kept at home, medicated and coddled, by her mother and her younger brother, Anthony, who in turn are kept prisoner by Jackie-O’s rages and intimations that Something Bad will happen if she does not always get her way. Jackie-O’s twin brother, Marty, comes home for Thanksgiving (while a symbolic hurricane rages outside), bringing along his fiancée Lesly. Lesly’s very existence awakens a sleeping dragon, which, not surprisingly, turns out to be that Marty and Jackie-O committed incest years ago through a bizarre re-enactment of the JFK assassination, and that Jackie-O still considers Marty to be her rightful lover. The plotline spirals down and down until, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, Jackie-O makes Marty hers forever.

Director Courtney O’Connor does a commendable job here, drawing out YES’s laughter-in-the-dark humor and keeping a spring-tight grip on the action that is only weakened by the inevitable blackouts between scenes – clump, clump, clump go the actors as they must simultaneously feel their way on stage and yet remain in character (surely Ms. MacLeod could have observed the classical Unities and written her play in one unbroken act!) And the cast is a bloody marvel; yet another ensemble to be added to my growing list of wonderful ensembles that I have seen this year – Boston is becoming a true theatre town! Ms. O’Connor has picked the right five instruments to play this tragicomic chamber piece; I don’t see how her cast could be bettered – or, at the very least, affect me the way that this one did.

This is the fourth time I have seen Helen McElwain perform onstage; kooky, eccentric characters (or else, kooky, eccentric interpretations) seem to be her forte. She may sing the same handful of notes over and over, but I’m happy to report that she has gotten quite good at it. Her Jackie-O is unforgettable: amusing, but not loveable; giddy, but not safe; seductive, but not erotic; what at first seems to be a flat-voiced, clumsy performance soon gives way to a burning journey into the heart and soul of a very sick person – Jackie-O, that is. Watch how Ms. McElwain performs her character’s sudden arias: she freezes – her eyes fixed on something in the far distance – and as her demons rise yet again to the surface, she builds in fury and intensity until you swear she will rip apart from all that fire within. Small wonder that Mrs. Pascal and Anthony live in fear of her – and that Marty, almost hypnotized, embraces his fate in this cobra’s dance.

I have also seen Shawn Sturnick onstage numerous times and, aside from his radiant Edgar in New Rep’s KING LEAR two years ago, his portrayal of Marty is his strongest work yet. Mr. Sturnick’s boyish good looks may forever keep him steeped in juveniles, but here he gets to play a variation of his typecasting; an anti-juvenile, if you will (you can’t perform Berg’s music until you’ve mastered Brahms’). Marty’s chorus-boy charm soon starts giving off discordant notes here and there; those notes become a subterranean score that only his sister/lover can hear, and when his last shred of decency gives way and he and Ms. McElwain ecstatically embrace like addicts falling off the wagon, the effect is both beautiful and terrible – they are truly meant for each other. The excellence of these two performances is a good enough argument that Boston must offer more support for the arts; to give birth to permanent repertory companies where actors can take root and grow as artists instead of blowing hither and yon. Ms. McElwain and Mr. Sturnick played another pair of doomed (but conventional) lovers in last year’s production of TRUST at the Sugan Theatre; having already known each other’s skin, so to speak, they could bring a sibling familiarity to Jackie-O and Marty that two “cold” actors may not have been able to summon up in just a few weeks’ worth of rehearsal time. (Come to think of it, last year Ms. O’Connor directed Ms. Sturnick in Ms. MacLeod’s SIN for the Coyote Theatre; no doubt, director, actor and theatre company only gained being exposed to her writing once again. Familiarity need not always breed contempt.)

The roles of Lesly, Anthony and Mrs. Pascal lack the complexity of the two leads, but, again, Ms. O’Connor has been blessed with three musicians who can punch their roles into two, if not three, dimensional life. Lesly, by nature, is the stock horror film heroine in the haunted house on a Dark and Stormy Night – variations of wide-eyed alarm – but Tanya Anderson plays her as a sweet peach with a hard pit of strength within; you can see why Marty is attracted to her and uses her as his shield. What a relief that Ron Rittinger has not been directed to play Anthony as yet another nerdy little brother/sidekick; Mr. Rittinger – just as boyish as Mr. Sturnick – infuses Anthony with his own brand of punk innocence, wariness and seductive slyness to show the effects of growing up in Jackie-O’s shadow. Best of all is Kippy Goldfarb as Mrs. Pascal, all cold smiles and table manners. She starts off as the Wicked (Step)mother – even approving of the reunion of Jackie-O and Marty – but Ms. Goldfarb gradually reveals her character to be a woman so badly frightened over what she has spawned that her glacial mannerisms are her only way of dealing with a situation that she knows can only end badly. (I could picture her sweeping a dead elephant under the rug with a pastry brush.) In fact, Ms. Goldfarb is so memorable as Ms. Pascal that I regretted Ms. MacLeod not giving the character more to do – say, have her recite a coda for the final tableau. (The play simply stops, not ends.)

Many a time the absence of a stage curtain can rob the audience of their “Ahhh!” of pleasure upon seeing a production’s set for the first time, but observing Mila Pavelka’s designs for the Pascal house beforehand also works to the Coyote’s advantage: a black-and-white checkerboard living room floor with retro-50s furniture; a slice of a bed upstage, placed between two pillars; and – most hauntingly – the backwall, with its doors and wall furnishings all painted (blanketed?) in soft, snowy white. That back wall started giving me the creeps during the fifteen minutes or so that I sat there waiting for the play to begin, and when it did, it all made sense – the Pascal house is both tomb and ward, with everything cushioned and blunted for Jackie-O’s sake. Time has not only stopped in this house – it has died.

Go see this show, while it’s still here. And may you find your way out again.

"The House of Yes" (23 May – 22 June)
Boston Center for the Arts
539 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 426-2787

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