Our houses are trying to kills us. Bathtubs drown us, showers trip us, errant toasters set the place ablaze — really, how can we sleep for fear? (Beds are pretty fatal, too.) And the threat isn’t only physical. This week, an oldish play, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and a newish one, Will Eno’s The Open House, show that there’s no place quite so dangerous as home.
In A Doll’s House, staged with nerve and precision by Carrie Cracknell at BAM, Nora and Torvald Helmer (Hattie Morahan and Dominic Rowan) enjoy a seemingly happy marriage. On Ian MacNeil’s whirligig set, Nora scurries from room to room, arranging Christmas presents, directing servants, dandling babies.
Then a disgraced employee threatens to expose Nora’s long-ago forgery, and this same cheerful apartment stifles her. No matter how quickly she flits from bedroom to kitchen to hall, she can’t find respite. When weak-willed Torvald forsakes her, Nora realizes she has to leave family and home if she is ever to stand on her own. In a moment of dawning horror, Nora looks around her bedroom and says, “This wasn’t really a house. It was a playroom. I’ve been your doll. . . . None of it was real in any way.” (The supple translation is courtesy playwright Simon Stephens.)
In Morahan’s pulse-racing performance, we are made to see how familiar comforts become sources of constraint and terror, how the same home and marriage that once delighted her now imperil her. As the play continues, Morahan trades a breathy, kittenish sensuality for lower, darker tones. When her surface attractions fail her, she gropes for an unexplored, untried strength. She’s wonderfully well-matched by Rowan as a man confident in his own power, forced to confront his private frailty. When Nora finally shuts the apartment door, they are two devastated people separated by a thin plane of wood, a great chasm of understanding.
The set of Will Eno’s The Open House might as well have been fitted with a revolving door. All the characters who crowd the stage at the opening eventually exit, only to return moments later as others. The Open House seems almost a parody of a certain kind of realist play: the unhappy lives, the dumpy surroundings, the worn couch squatting front and center. Of course, Eno’s writing sets the piece apart, as his lines resemble sitcom dialogue script doctored by Schopenhauer.
When the play begins, a woeful clan has gathered for the parents’ anniversary. Peter Friedman’s father snipes at everyone while Carolyn McCormick’s mother tries to maintain a thin veneer of courtesy. Gradually, Eno finds ways to shunt each of them outdoors — a lunch run, a trip to the pharmacy, a sudden heart attack. They’re replaced by a realtor, a handyman, and a much cheerier family who have come to view the home.
If Ibsen’s play turns on despair lurking beneath a seemingly pleasant exterior, Eno’s is the opposite, as dysfunction gives way to satisfaction. When the handyman strips off a drab sheet of wallpaper, he reveals a jauntier pattern underneath. Neither Eno nor director Oliver Butler can make the play’s import outpace its inventive structure. But perhaps the seemingly happy ending has a subtextual sting: How long before age, attrition, decay, and death sour these incomers? That front door mat may not stay welcoming for long.