note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Matthew Breton
Henry lives in a gorgeous Victorian house --- the kind you find in haunted house movies. He has the cramped and cluttered living space of a writer, with piles of books, dictionaries and encyclopedias on the floor, an old mechanical typewriter on a desk, and an eclectic assortment of hats. There's even a white picket fence at the very edge of the stage, battered and weather-stripped. It's an evocative set, with a backdrop of spiral patterns much like van Gogh's "Starry Night" or Edvard Munch's "The Scream." There are some very fine lighting touches: the flicker of lightning outside the window, which wakes Henry at the outset of the play. Wakefulness proves short-lived, as he blows out his candle and retires to bed.
Henry (performed by playwright Robert Kropf) is trying to jumpstart his creativity and write a play. His creative flow is hampered, however, by the many wounds that have been visited upon the family. Henry's mother (Donna Sorbello), who owns the house, is still coming to terms with the absence of her husband, who left her on the day their son was born. One wounded relationship in turn wounds another, and though they share the same house, it's obvious that they lead very separate lives. Henry's sister (Adrianne Krstansky), drawn to the house by the same candle Henry puffs out, comes by to visit, coax Henry to write, and eventual perform it on the living room sofa, bouncing in between lines.
Henry's play, called "The Walker House," a semi-autobiographical view of the family, provides a sense of revelation, but also triggers great destruction: the burning of the house and the mother's eventual suicide. Truth and deceit are commonly bred, life and death are inextricably bound, great catastrophe can yet give way to greater beauty --- as, after events of this past week, one can only hope fervently. But the characters, and indeed the language of the play, all focus inwardly --- on memories, on fears, on pain. Henry and his mother clutch their secrets tightly, and hint at jewels hidden inside their coffers, but the lid is never cracked open wide enough for these treasures to be revealed.
Henry varies between a serious Woody Allen and a resurrected beat poet. Henry's mother, in contrast, is nearly monochromatic. Henry's sister, on the other hand, lapses in and out of so many characterizations --- French chic, Southern belle, cowgirl --- that her role as devoted sibling seems incidental, merely one of many portraitures. Meanwhile Henry's audience struggles to keep up with the play. The metaphors are as cramped as the furniture --- fire, rain, fog, vision, life and death --- and in crowding in so much material, Kropf transgresses both local fire codes and poetic sensibility. Too often "The Playhouse" seems taken with its own sense of drama, confusing obscurity for profundity. Like lightning seen through fog, or a candle in a window, it's easy to see this light --- but difficult to see by it.