In the Bible, sneaky Jacob swindles his hirsute, dull-witted bro, Esau, out of his patrimony with a well-timed furry glove. But Jacob was also resolute, wrestling an angel for God’s blessing. For playwright August Schulenburg, these two qualities—unscrupulousness plus appetite—make Jacob’s story an apt vehicle for our national past. His retelling of the patriarch’s exploits, Jacob’s House (now playing at Access Theater, directed by Kelly O’Donnell), recasts the Old Testament myth as a ponderous historical allegory—one that doesn’t reveal much about myth or history.
Jacob (Matthew Archambault) has finally expired after an epic lifespan matching the American Republic’s. The great man’s quarrelsome heirs gather in the junk-crowded family manse to dispute his legacy. Clumsy flashbacks in period costume—usually beginning with “I remember”—summon Jacob’s restless strivings: He becomes a robber-baron capitalist, complicit in slave-trading and imperialist abuses.
Meanwhile, the shrill progeny trade insults and slaps. Perhaps this is a point about the banal descendants of august ancestors. More likely, it’s just angling for yuks.
After grasping the utterly uncontroversial premise—America has a criminal past, but is admirably self-inventing—there’s little to glean from this schematic adaptation. Schulenburg concludes with a cop-out: The descendants soppily agree to share their fractious inheritance, and fumble on. Angels in America this ain’t.