If the reputation of Kenyon's playwright-in-residence Wendy MacLeod depended on "The House of Yes" from 1990, she might be written off as another Durang-wannabe, particularly after the 1998 film version starring Parker Posey, produced by Spelling with a part for Tori -- of course. Indeed after 90 minutes, there's less in this script than meets the eye. Character potential is vitiated by plot manipulation and undigested symbols. The hurricane outside is more a chore for the sound man than reflective of the turmoil onstage.
This production, mounted by the reliable Coyote Theatre, which previously had something of a triumph last season with the author's "Sin", does about as well as can be with MacLeod's one-liners and quirks, and tries to make sense of the unfolding peculiarities onstage. The cast, headed by dependably off-kilter Helen McElwain as "Jackie O", attempts to bring this improbable cohort to life. As female half of a pair of incestuous twins, the source of a great deal of problematic humor early in the play, and fixated on the Kennedy assassination some 20 years earlier, MacElwain mines her repertoire of comic madness. A few more roles like this and she'll be typecast as the Boston actress most likely to explode at any minute -- but always fun to watch.
Jackie's twin brother, Marty, Shawn Sturnick, seen previously in Coyote's "Sin", this time looking and acting like a young Christopher Reed, obviously has problems of his own. Indeed the primary unanswered question of the play is why has he come back from NY to the family manse in Maclean VA. His conflicts are implicit and his death may taken as suicide by proxy. His engagement to Lesly, played by Tanya Anderson seems to have been an attempt to escape the "fatal" attraction to his sister, which is a given, like so many other details in this script. The major clue is his mother's statement that when Marty was born, Jackie was holding his penis.
Conversation stoppers like that are this family's stock in trade and of course Mrs. Pascal, done to pickled perfection by local theatre veteran Kippy Goldfarb, is the past master of such non sequiturs. Unfortunately, lines like that highlight the contrived structure of the piece and make it hard to develop sympathy for any one of the characters. Ron Rittinger's Anthony, the younger brother, an arrested teenager at twenty-three, seems also to have a yen for his half-sister. Mrs. Pascal calmly states that she's not sure who the father of any of her children might be, but she's sure that the late Mr. P. wasn't. The playwright seems to have gone out of her way to create a peculiar set of circumstances for this "dark and quirky" (according to the catalog) comedy.
Finding a through line of action in such a piece can be daunting. Director Courtney O'Connor, who helmed "Sin" last season, manages the flow of revelations which pass for a plot, but doesn't manage to move the show to a climax. The author's attempt at inevitability becomes "so what?", which may be the best this 90 minute exercise can offer. The script has no center; just five unlikely characters intended to expose some sort of upper-class underbelly, one already explored all too frequently on soap-operas et al. Lesly, the naive outsider -- that is the official spelling of her name -- might provide some perspective. Her seduction by Anthony, who also may have a yen for his sister, however, proves to be a non-plot twist. Anderson does her best to suggest some sort of normalcy, but the circumstances are too melodramatic.
There's a clear impression that this play was written to be doable. Five actors, a two-area interior set, a simple sound effect (wind), and just enough costume changes. Jackie's bloodstained pink suit, purportedly created for a masquerade some years before, is the biggest challenge. Costumer Suzann Chesney does well enough with this whole show, and MacElwain's initial "Jackie" dress sets the period, sort of. The set, by Mila Palvelka, creates an adequate impression of elegance by using white on white for the bedroom in the background with painted tile for the main floor. Black and white checkerboard may not have been the best choice, but it was doable. What's missing, to set some sort of upper-class tone, is at least one servant. We're told the maid left when Jackie shot Marty for the first time, which seems too convenient. It's Thanksgiving. Rich people have help "in" for the holidays.
The title -- "The House of Yes" -- supposedly refers to the lives of said rich -- and not so famous -- who are never denied anything. It would be easy to say "No" to such a show, which depends on incest for its comic hook, if the challenges of production weren't so seductive. Perhaps MacLeod intends to invoke the 18th century Catholic heretic and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, in naming this family, but the predestination she imposes on them is hardly the divine wrath of his almost Calvinist Jansenism. MacLean Virginia is not Port Royal, though if the play were set in Hyannis, maybe ... Coyote has generally attempted to do relevant contemporary works which challenge audiences. The challenge here is to deal with the play's shortcomings and to appreciate the ensemble's attempt to overcome them.
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