Upon entering Manbites Dog Theater in Durham for a performance of The Open House, one immediately notices how plain the set is: devoid of color, warmth, or complexity. When the lights rise, a half-dozen bland and awkward characters are present on stage, wearing uninteresting costumes. The lighting is one-tone. Everything is sedate and awkward.
Why, then, does one leave the theater feeling so satisfied only 85 minutes later?
That is thanks to Brooklyn-based playwright Will Eno, who won the 2014 OBIE Award for playwriting for this Off-Broadway piece. Eno’s plays are known for their focus on simple, human stories — earning him frequent comparison to Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. The Open House is no different. In addition to the OBIE, the play also won the Lortel Award, a special Drama Desk Award, and was named one of the Top Ten Plays of 2014 by both Time Magazine and Time Out New York.
This play’s ingenuity lies in the baffling sluggishness of its first half. The beige world of an unhappy suburban family is almost unwatchable at first — the passive tension of their relationships is off-putting and their hateful behavior is uncomfortable.
But then something happens. Something inventive. One spends the remainder of the play in a constant state of surprise and delight, as we enter a more colorful universe. Alas, I cannot tell you what happens or what it means to the piece. You’ve got to see that for yourself. Suffice it to say, Eno’s 90-degree turn is jarring and, at first, confusing; but the jolt of energy given to the play is most welcome.
Manbites Dog artistic director Jeff Storer places tremendous trust in his actors and his audience, allowing the discomfort to play out steadily and encouraging his actors to keep everything held back. Until the mid-play shift, that is.
Derrick Ivey’s set is brilliant and surprising, helping the play make a visual shift as it makes a tonal and emotional one. Likewise, Ivey’s costumes help bring Manbites Dog’s production of The Open House to life as it nears its conclusion.
Lighting designer Chuck Catotti effectively blends exterior and interior light sources — a difficult task given the limited grid and dark depth of the Manbites Dog space. Joseph Amodei’s sound design also becomes more complex and lively as the play progresses. An early sound cue feels strangely repetitive and robotic — likely a choice that highlights the family’s mundane, predictable existence in the first half.
This play requires a highly-skilled cast of actors, and director Jeff Storer certainly got his hands on one. The sickly and cantankerous Father is played with perfect timing and unapologetic meanness by Michael Foley, while Marcia Edmundson’s ineloquent but well-intentioned Mother is the production’s most believable and sympathetic character.
J Evarts’ portrayal of Daughter is sharp and intelligent — with the comedic, ginger sexiness of Marilu Henner. Matthew Hager portrays Son, the play’s most dynamic character, playing a broad spectrum of characteristics across the story. The goofy and likable Uncle is presented with terrific energy and tenderness by Michael Brocki.
The play, and the production, demands that one be patient and go with the piece, rather than work against it — being at ease with unease. Though not the most exciting piece of theater in the world, the play’s clever twists, dynamic acting, and apt design make it a worthwhile trip to Durham.
The play is in the PG zone, but would not likely interest those under 14 years of age.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 29th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Jeffrey Rossman: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8192; Oct. 28th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article111105192.html; and Oct. 19th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-open-house/Event?oid=5078379.
Manbites Dog Theater presents THE OPEN HOUSE at 2 p.m. Oct. 30 and 8:15 p.m. Nov. 3-5 and 9-12 at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $12 Wednesday/Thursday and $20 Friday-Sunday ($6 weeknights and $10 weekends for students and $10 weeknights and $18 weekends for seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 919-682-3343, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=1.
2016-17 SEASON: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2016-17-season/.
BLOG (The Upstager): http://theupstager.wordpress.com/.
The Open House (2014 Off-Broadway play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/44439/open-house-the (Samuel French, Inc.) and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5711 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Will Eno (Brooklyn, NY-based playwright): http://www.samuelfrench.com/catalog/search?author=Will%20Eno (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/39221 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Eno (Wikipedia).
Jeff Storer (Durham, NC director and Manbites Dog Theater’s artistic director): https://theaterstudies.duke.edu/people/jeff-m-storer (Duke Theater Studies bio) and https://www.facebook.com/jeff.storer.9 (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.