Sunday, November 11, 2012

House of Yes Is Frighteningly Hilarious

By James E. Trainor III

Iowa City - Marty Pascal (Jordan Running) is bringing his fiancee home for Thanksgiving dinner. It's something he has to do—even if it kills him. For though they survive the hurricane raging outside the house, the storm inside, the one centered around his deranged twin sister and ex-lover Jackie (Annmarie Steffes), may well destroy them all.

House of Yes is Wendy MacLeod's pitch-black comedy about love, class, incest, and madness. Dreamwell's production, directed by Christina Patramanis, opened at the Universalist Unitarian Society in Iowa City this weekend.

The plot involves a well-to-do but very disturbed family in Virginia. Marty, the oldest brother, has brought Lesly (Alexis Russell) home to meet his mother (Tracy Schoenle), brother (AJ Richman), and mentally ill sister. A storm traps the family in the house, leaving the turkey sitting cold in the oven, the ice melting in the freezer, and the candlelit conversation brimming over with dark secrets.

The naive Lesly (played with charm and excellent comic timing by Russell), learns quickly that Marty's home life is not quite normal. Within the first fifteen minutes of the play, we learn of the mother's frequent extra-marital affairs, of the erratic state of Jackie's psyche, and we see hints of the bizarre fetish that the two twins share. This could all be dreary and uncomfortable, but the exposition is delivered at lightning-quick speed, with snappy setups, snappier returns, and whip-sharp reversals. The dark content of the play may be disturbing, but MacLeod's witty dialogue makes the ride frightfully entertaining.

The play is carried by "Jackie O" (who earned her nickname from a rather tasteless display at a costume party), and Steffes gives the role a biting wit and a fascinating drive. The spoiled girl wants nothing but total possession of her brother, and the vicious, spiteful way she wraps the family around her finger is at once appalling and incredibly exciting. This character should be despicable—she's certainly demented—but despite all that she's a lot of fun to watch; the fiercely intelligent and jealous Jackie has the last laugh in nearly every scene.

Steffes plays this part quite well, delivering the clever dialogue with delicious flair. She's an excellent scene partner, constantly listening and engaging, and she has a way of feeding off the energy of her castmates and taking each scene over the top. Her magnetic attachment to Running and her scornful sniping at Russell keep this downward spiral of a plot hurtling along at breakneck speed.

Running puts some very nuanced character work into portraying Marty; it's intriguing to watch him resist Jackie firmly, then fall for her, then try to pull himself out again at the end. Torn between his crazy but fascinating sister and his normal but dull fiancee, Marty has a lot of ground to cover, and Running has the range to pull it off. Marty spends much of the play as a quiet observer, but Running's facial work and body language tell a lot about his inner struggles. It's definitely the most realistic acting in this wildly comic play.

The cast works really well as a unit, making this a tightly cohesive ensemble piece. All of them are intensely present, on top of the verbal back-and-forth and pushing the energy out. There are some great pairings; Steffes and Russell make a great comic duo, as do Russell and Richman. Schoenle bears herself well as the haughty and kooky Mrs. Pascal; her outfit (costumes by Christina Patramanis) is ridiculous and her delivery of punchlines is impeccable. Richman is great as dopey younger brother Anthony; he's a bit stiff at first, but he jumps into the part once things get going, and he makes some very effective character choices. Russell is sweet and funny as Lesly, the powerless symbol of normalcy. She bonds well with Running and makes a great straight man during the more outrageous scenes.

Christina Patramanis' direction is outstanding. The scenework is well thought-out and very engaging. She makes some interesting choices with the pacing; the show rushes ahead at first, and some of the early scenes end abruptly and awkwardly. It fits the tone, however, and it's worth the risk because it highlights the sharp wit in MacLeod's writing. Patramanis doesn't let the audience rest; much of the stage time is filled with verbal sparring or physical comedy.

The end of the show, though, takes some time to breathe. We get a little bit of insight into just how sick these characters are. They're still sick when the lights are out and all the jokes have been made, and that's what makes this effective satire. The decision to treat these characters as real people, even when the writing treats them as slightly absurd, is one of the most effective traits of the acting and directing.

The scarred relationship between Marty and Jackie is truly sad, and a little bit creepy. Jackie is a monster created by unchecked love—her own twisted love for her twin brother and the misguided love of her family for her; they want to help her but they can't bear to reign her in. Mrs. Pascal's complete disavowal of parental responsibility is both funny and tragic:

"You can read Dr. Spock from now 'til Doomsday, but children just happen all the same. This one has blue eyes, that one's insane."

Only Marty is really able to take responsibility for Jackie, but he won't; he needs to free himself from her. From his cautious wordplay to his choice of bride, his every move is to make a normal life for himself, away from his dangerously disturbed family. But his rejection pushes Jackie over the edge, and as the tension builds we wonder just how far she will go.

The set (by Joe Tranmer) and lights (by Rich Riggleman), work well together to help tell this story. The entire stage is covered, with two settings—living room and bedroom—but the furniture is well-chosen and the actors have plenty of room to move. The lights are able to separate the two areas cleanly and create different times of day and different moods—including the frightening atmosphere of being in the middle of a storm.

House of Yes is a simply hilarious production—a dark comedy that's surprisingly light-hearted most of the time. It's also an example of great storytelling: a great script, effective direction, and intensely committed actors. Go to Dreamwell's website to get your tickets; there are two more shows, November 16 and 17 at 7:30.

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