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There are two ways to approach Dan O’Brien’s “The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage”. One can look at it as just that – a memoir created by gradually collecting as many as possible of the secrets a family never told. In this view, the show becomes an elaborate puzzle made up of the various reticent members of a deeply dysfunctional family which gradually come together to underscore the demons inhabiting the playwright himself. That works, after a fashion.
The other view, however, which can be far more intriguing, is to look at the entire play as the story of a quest: the kind of quest where the searching is everything. It allows for conjecture and obsession and self-affirmation, but is also a thing in itself which becomes integral in the quester’s view of the world. Now receiving its premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court, the play is far more interesting in the latter view.
Here it takes its place alongside other questing folk of story and legend who defined themselves by the search, not the finding. Like the unsuccessful search for the Holy Grail (sorry, Indiana Jones fans), the journey was the story all along. Finding the thing being searched for would (and is) almost pointless. The questing, and the questions, make the story.
O’Brien, according to this work, is the youngest of six children, none of whom (as the play begins) he has contact with. He has been cut off by his parents as well, and his aunts have been told not to speak with him. How a family could reach this state is one question, but as he pursues the whys and reexamines his own memories, it is the search as much as the purpose of it which is most interesting to follow. Is he looking for a verification of his own sanity in a family short on just that? Is he looking for a reason why his marriage is in trouble? Is he trying to reconstruct a sense of family?
Or, is he in love with the search itself as a symbol of his own identity as a seeker? This last begins to seem more and more clearly the answer as the tale unfolds.
All of this is presented on a nearly empty stage by two men. One, the Dan played by Brian Henderson, becomes the protagonist on the quest, narrating his own story as he calls, writes, visits and pieces together with private detectives and psychics the story of himself. The other, the Dan played by Tim Cummings, is sometimes the argument inside the protagonist’s head, as well as becoming all the people on the other end of the quest’s questions and investigations, at least as Dan remembers them. For both men this is a tour-de-force, performed without intermission in an inexorable forward motion rife with adventure, anger, frustration, and a certain joy of the chase.
Director Michael Michetti wisely allows this tale to play out with a minimum of distraction and a maximum of the actors’ art. The set by Sara Ryung Clement is two chairs and two screens upon which are projected a few photos – some out of focus, which makes its own point – as well as innumerable drawings which illustrate the remembrances and mental architecture that the protagonist constructs. Indeed, these projections, designed by Tom Ontiveros, become, themselves, a character in the piece. What is real? What is dim recollection? What is conjecture? What is pure fantasy?
There is no doubt that the production is splendid, or that the script is articulate, complex and compelling. Henderson and most particularly Cummings create scene after scene out of words and the air. Yet the argument still lies in the question: to what purpose? Audience members will have differing answers depending on which spin they take from the start. My contention, obviously, is that this is a quest story. Indeed, the singular note of regret in this work comes as the answers appear to be found. To say more is to lessen the moment’s impact, but the overall feel is “Now what?”
“The House in Scarsdale” was workshopped at several prestigious institutions, including the Center Theatre Group, while in the process of completion. The results are fascinating watching, even if the ending is, at best, a hanging one.
What: The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage” When: through June 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added $5 performance May 22 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 general, $34 seniors, $20 students Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com
Long before Edward Albee’s portrait of a manipulative, wretched, psychologically sadistic marriage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” there was August Strindberg. A man whose view of matrimony can be gleaned from the 19th century playwright’s four unsuccessful marriages, Strindberg examined the twists and turns of relationship in several works, but never created a more mutually vicious version than that in “The Dance of Death.”
Now opened as the third leg of their three-play fall repertory, the production of this work at A Noise Within in Pasadena creates an equally stunning portrait of deeply psychological marital dysfunction, laid out in front of a guest who finds himself gradually swept up in the grimly manipulative human interactions there. A new translation by Conor McPherson, receiving its west coast premiere, brings this play out of the somewhat dated tonalities often associated with “classic” works into a contemporary language framework which makes the play both more accessible and more disturbing.
Co-Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott direct this one “straight”, allowing the ferocity and isolation of the characters’ worlds to create movement without the unnecessary embellishments which sometime cloud their productions. The result is stark but continually interesting. Like watching a train-wreck, you just can’t look away from these two as they destroy the world around them. Even for the third character onstage, and certainly for us out there in the dark, that the point.
Elliott is Edgar, an aging misanthrope whose self-absorption and sloth have kept him a low ranking army officer assigned to a bleak island outpost. He has no friends, no money, possibly no food, but vibrates with a strangely concocted dignity nonetheless. Susan Angelo is Edgar’s wife of nearly 25 years, Alice. A former actress yearning for the life she could have led, she mourns absent children and concocts plots to overthrow her husband.
Into this world comes Alice’s cousin Kurt, played by Eric Curtis Johnson. An earnest man of significant rank, he has demons of his own to deal with, but soon falls into the clutches of these relatives who devour his finer sensitivities over the course of the play’s two hours.
Angelo and Elliott prove a fine match, with energy levels and intensities so similar the whole piece becomes an unpredictable fencing bout. Likewise Johnson provides an interesting counterbalance to all that ferocity, and proves subtle in his changes from compassion to an increasing loss of veneer. Indeed, this may be the most difficult part in the play – to change while those around you essentially do not.
Angela Balogh Calin has created an interesting set – at once solid and see-through. It makes for unique symbolism, but removes some of what would seem to be elemental claustrophobia implied in the script. Her costume designs, on the other hand, quickly and accurately evoke the needed elements of attitude, class and title, like visual shorthand.
“The Dance of Death” provides a fascinating character study, and – as with Albee’s later play – considerable meat for discussion. Its view of marriage as a death match, and its dismissal of the collateral damage are disturbingly timeless, making it surprising the play isn’t done more often. Perhaps this new translation will help change that, so that like “Miss Julie,” this Strindberg work becomes a part of the canon.
In the meantime, though not for the faint of heart, “The Dance with Death” is well worth seeing. Just don’t expect something Halloween-y. Sadly, its Poe-esque name has already led to some misconceptions in that department.
What: “The Dance of Death” When: in repertory with “The Tempest” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” 8 p.m. October 24, 25, 31, and November 15; 7:30 p.m. October 30; 7 p.m. November 9 and 23; 2 p.m. October 25, November 15 and November 23 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush with ID, group rates available Info: (626) 356-3100, ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org