The Open House: six degrees of obscuration

Open House-5204

Less than halfway through this evening, I wrote in my notebook, “I don’t want to spend any more time with them.” Mostly, I was talking about the characters; there are strengths—as well as significant weaknesses—in the production.

In The Open House, which runs an unbroken 90 minutes, adult Son and Daughter have come home to celebrate Mother and Father’s wedding anniversary. The evening starts with an extended passage in which these four—and Uncle—abuse each other and ignore one another’s cries for help.

Having suffered strokes and heart attacks, Father uses a wheelchair—and he’s a flaming asshole. When Uncle makes a comment about the kids’ affection for pets, Father spits, “How many times do I have to ask you never to think about this family?” Father relentlessly insults and belittles Mother, making it clear that she is a third-choice wife who has become an idiotic inconvenience. And, when Son tries to open up to Father, Father says, “Work this into your sleep” and mimes shooting him.

Mother copes—barely—with positive thinking: “It’s fun to be here on this funny old planet! I like this little life of mine!”

The venom in this family has had a paralyzing effect: nobody can move. They’re all so wounded that every offer of intimacy, every flash of vulnerability, is met with avoidance.

The dynamics are funny sometimes—like when Father wonders if his cruelty would play better if he were more charismatic, or when somebody gets a lick in: when father snaps at Mother, “Don’t call me dear”, for instance, Daughter replies, “She didn’t.” But what’s the point? That change isn’t possible? That there is no catharsis?

Probably. But then everything changes—sort of.

Spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know about the most theatrical development in the script, read no further.

One by one the characters, except for Father, disappear and the actors playing them re-enter as different people. Daughter has become a real estate agent—Father has decided to sell the family home—and the agent is there to manage the open house that becomes the focus of the second half.

To a considerable extent, the back half of The Open House is a liberation. Unrelated to Father through family ties, the new bunch isn’t cowed by him. Son reemerges as a landscaper and painter named Tom who is more than willing to punch Dad’s lights out.

Still, I continued to search in vain for any thoughts of more than passing interest. Though more assertive, the superficial new characters can also be casually cruel, but so what? There are all sorts of interesting ways to say that we’re stuck—just ask Samuel Beckett—but The Open House feels like a relatively shallow stylistic exercise.

It’s also a tricky exercise and director Alan Brodie fails to create stylistic  coherence.

Anita Wittenberg as Mother and Melissa Oei as Daughter shine. Wittenberg mines Mother’s comic pettiness and desperation for all they’re worth and her glamorous part-two character is a deliciously thorough contrast. Oei’s transformation is so complete that the woman I saw this show with thought that Daughter and her second-half manifestation were played by different actors.

But Michael Querin overacts Uncle’s humiliation, Gerry Mackay fails to find the humanity—by which I probably mean suffering—in Father that would make it bearable to spend time with him, and there’s no overall style that binds the ensemble: Oei’s Daughter and Zac Scott’s Son are essentially naturalistic, Wittenberg’s Mother steps deeply into absurdity, and Mackay’s Father is naturalistic but two-dimensional.

Interestingly, the acting is much more stylistically consistent in the more broadly satirical second half, which sends up yuppie self-satisfaction.

Brodie has also made other questionable choices. With Scott, who acted as sound designer as well as playing Son, he opens and closes the production with contemplative classical music, which feels far too sentimental for such acerbic material. And, with production designer Alaia Hamer, he has created a too-obvious contrast between the play’s two movements, shifting from dowdiness to picture-book cheer.

Sticks and Stones Theatre is an ambitious young company and The Open House is a challenging choice. But they don’t really know what they’re doing with it.

THE OPEN HOUSE By Will Eno. Directed by Alan Brodie. A Sticks and Stones Theatre production. At the Havana Theatre on Friday, January 18.  Continues until January 26. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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