Shakespeare and his business partners called their theater the Globe, believing they could put the whole world on view within its wooden O. Playwrights today don’t go that far: Shakespeare’s world was burgeoning, but ours, thanks to technology and speedy communications, has expanded informationally almost to the bursting point. Plus nowadays, everything, including actors, costs more to put onstage. The struggle to cram our out-of-control existence into the theater’s limited confines constantly gets harder. We should be glad, I guess, that playwrights keep trying to build the world out of the meager resources they’re allotted. Plays that struggle to engage our reality at least have a chance of causing theatrical excitement; the sad part is how rarely they succeed.
Reality and the way the media mess with it should be the subject of Theresa Rebeck’s Our House (Playwrights Horizons). Rebeck has a lot to say—much of it familiar, but a good deal of that sharply phrased and worth rehearing—about how television, under commercial pressure, alters not only our perceptions but its own definition of its function, warping, in the process, the idea of integrity, of journalistic responsibility, of what constitutes news.
Unhappily, Rebeck’s medium here isn’t as convincing or cogent as her message. Our House occurs in two alternating spaces, a TV network headquarters and a private house in St. Louis shared by four young people. With its contrasting types and genders (2m, 2f), the house looks like a setup for a reality show, and one of its residents, a compulsively chattering couch potato named Merv (Jeremy Strong), spends most of his life by the TV set in the communal living room, delivering a rapid-fire commentary on the lame behavior seen on such shows. Overworked, exhausted Grigsby (Mandy Siegfried) and nondescript, easygoing Vince (Haynes Thigpen) can slough off Merv’s solipsistic babble, but to fussy, earnest Alice (Katie Kreisler), Merv’s nonstop jabber, along with his apathy about matters like paying the rent on time, constitute a daily Golgotha. What keeps Alice there, what keeps the others from tossing Merv out, why such incompatible types should seemingly be trapped in a no-exit situation, Rebeck doesn’t clarify; nor does she give much sense of the lives this quartet leads outside the house. Like reality shows themselves, she finds the setup sufficient for her purposes.
Similar superficialities prevail on the opposite side of the stage. In the real world, the drive to win higher ratings may well dumb down newscasting, but not for the reason Rebeck supplies here. Megalomaniacal network head Wes (Christopher Evan Welch), who is screwing his popular new anchorwoman, Jennifer (Morena Baccarin), fixates on elevating her to maximum stardom. He gives her additional duties as host of a new reality show, triggering pained objections from the news division’s head, Vic (Stephen Kunken). As in the crowded coziness of the St. Louis house, the goings-on in Wes’s palatial but barren office (it has only one chair—his) raise questions of believability that displace the ethical ones Rebeck wants to raise. With Wes and Jennifer’s affair being the talk of the chat sites, you wonder why neither Wes’s wife nor his board of directors interferes, why other network brass accept the situation so passively, why neither Wes nor Jennifer ever has a moment’s qualm. The characters’ sociopathy starts to look like the playwright’s convenience.
This last point ultimately undoes Rebeck. When violence, flaring up in the St. Louis house, finally lets her bring her two stories together, the results are all too pat, as if occurring in a comic-strip world where nothing’s complicated and nothing matters very much. The play’s intended satire becomes, instead, just another version of what it’s satirizing, a cleverly contrived piece of media exploitation, by an experienced TV writer, about how the media exploit us. As the critic Louis Kronenberger quipped half a century ago, about George Axelrod’s similarly half-truthful play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, “Integrity in Hollywood writers should be seen and not heard.”
Even half-truths can shine, fortunately, when inhabited by performers with inner fire of the kind director Michael Mayer seems to have a knack for igniting in young actors. Welch and Kunken, artistic chameleons who are always reliable and always surprising, work subtle wonders here; Siegfried builds a full portrait from very few hints. Best of all are Strong and Kreisler: Mapping their contrasting manias like master geographers, they display between them enough bravura to steal this and a dozen other shows as well.
I wish that they, or somebody, would steal in to light a fire under Naomi Wallace’s Things of Dry Hours (New York Theatre Workshop). Here, the cast has power enough: Delroy Lindo, Garret Dillahunt, and, most of all, the lambently convincing Roslyn Ruff provide solid-pack truthfulness from start to finish. But Wallace, abetted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s somber, stately direction, makes the hours dry ones indeed with the meandering route she takes through what boils down to be a small, fairly predictable anecdote: In unemployment-racked Birmingham, circa 1932, an aging widower (Lindo), a laid-off steelworker who is both a Sunday-school teacher and a loyal Communist Party member, lives with his daughter (Ruff), also widowed, who supports the household by doing white folks’ laundry. Into this stark milieu comes a white itinerant (Dillahunt), desperately seeking refuge after having struck and possibly killed a steel-mill foreman.
Hard to swallow, Wallace’s premise gains little conviction from the familiar paces she puts it through. The gravely poetic tone of her dialogue proffers some ringingly good lines, but many more paragraphs of drossy earnestness. Of course the aging Red sees a potential convert in the untutored young redneck, who of course proves an apt pupil whenever his eye isn’t wandering to the lady at the laundry tub. Of course there’s a betrayer in the house; of course the outcome’s painful for all concerned. But the story’s life, and any meaning it might have for us today, seem removed and distant. The more vividly the actors inhabit their roles, the more they seem trapped inside a museum case—peasant under glass.