Theresa Rebeck has worked in television on and off, writing for, among other series, NYPDBlue. She’s currently developing an HBO series called Women’s Studies with actor Julie White. To say she’s seen the dark side of the medium would be putting it mildly. Her latest satirical play about the industry is Our House, at Playwright’s Horizons, smartly directed by Michael Mayer and beautifully performed by a cast that successfully communicates its difficult tone. Everything works in this production. At times, Rebeck delivers her warning message about the confusion of reality and television with too heavy a hand. But since the matinee performance I saw (6/6/09) was a preview, that kink will no doubt get worked out during the run.
Originally commissioned, workshopped, and produced at the Denver Center Theatre, the play describes Wes, a New York, shark of a corporate network television honcho; Jennifer Ramirez, his ambitious news-anchor mistress; and Stu, the dubious, conscience-prone head of the network news division, as their wheelings and dealings overlap with a household of down-at-the-heel roommates somewhere in St. Louis. The play’s intercutting structure reveals its plan and purpose just before the end of the first act, which meanders a bit as Rebeck unspools the relationships and issues that drive the eventual crisis.
I won’t reveal the necessary surprise of that first act’s explosive ending (although I should also say: Spoiler alert!). Suffice it to say that four oddly matched roommates comprise the shabby household in St. Louis. The characters are lightly drawn; Vince (Haynes Thigpen) is a computer nerd who rides a bike to and from work; Grigsby (Mandy Siegried) is a med student intern at a hospital ER; and Alice (Katie Kreisler) newly arrived from Vermont, is a strident, politically correct woman who grates on the others’ nerves.
The fourth roommate is a couch potato graduate student named Merv (Jeremy Strong) who owes the others $4,000 in back rent, but lives blithely unconcerned with his responsibilities or the niceties of a shared household. He raids the refrigerator, poaching his roommates’ food; he stares at the tv for hours, talking back to vapid reality tv shows; and he appears to have the emotional and intellectual constitution of an adolescent. His roommates do little to provoke his eventual violence, which he enacts as spontaneously and thoughtlessly, as he might play a video game.
In fact, Merv’s behavior illustrates Rebeck’s point, which is that network television is in cahoots with an increasingly banal culture that elevates “reality tv” to the status of real-life urgency. Merv looses his ability to discern what’s real from what’s not and can’t grasp the consequences of his actions, which prove dire and irreversible. Instead, when he finds himself in trouble, he asks for help from the only heroine his blinkered broadcast world regularly offers—Jennifer Ramirez (Morena Baccarin), the network news-reader who seems more real to him than his flawed, ordinary, live roommates.
When Merv asks that Jennifer come to negotiate his situation, Wes (Christopher Evan Welch), the crass network head whose machinations provide the counterpoint to Merv’s actions, smells an opportunity for publicity and the fabricated drama he’d much rather program than real reportage. “Who needs news?” he scoffs, as he insists that staying informed in America is optional. Rebeck uses Wes’ response to her contrived events to satirize the networks’ self-serving self-importance and their social irresponsibility.
When Jennifer arrives at the St. Louis residence to interview Merv live on national television, the other roommates urge her to intervene in what’s become a life-and-death crisis. She firmly demurs, insisting that members of the press can’t interfere with the events they cover. Trotting out this chestnut of journalistic ethics in this situation provokes one of the play’s biggest laughs, as Rebeck demonstrates how the presence of the press creates as much as it reflects on the news as it happens.
Jennifer is mouthpiece with an ear-piece, her life-line to Wes and his instructions. When her interview with Merv doesn’t generate enough heat, he tells her to “juice it up,” which she does without hesitation, further illustrating how journalists are agents, as much as archivists, of the events they cover. After Jennifer’s shocking intervention, Wes crows that “the numbers are through the roof,” as he and the anchorwoman/reporter lock lips in the sensation-fueled desire that brought them together in the first place.
Rebeck’s plays sometimes come uncomfortably close to sexism in her portrayals of women.Although most of her work satirizes current events and values, it’s occasionally difficult to tell where her gender stereotypes end and her social critique begins. She draws those lines much more clearly in Our House, and Mayer’s sharp direction and the actors’ clear choices clarify her critique of how gender is used to help networks jockey for position.
Jennifer works her body much more than her mind to move up the corporate tv ladder. She and Wes have sex on his desk as he schemes about cutting 700 jobs from the news division.She’s happy to be his puppet to improve her career, and gleefully participates in her own objectification. One of the production’s many sight gags has Jennifer popping in and out to report short news briefs, each time in a different, increasingly more revealing outfit. The series of costumes changes ends with the anchorwoman in her bra and a skirt, refusing the cowl-neck sweater sent to her from Wardrobe.
And yet, Jennifer isn’t stupid; when she mispronounces “Shi’ite” as “shite” in a newscast, she catches her humiliating mistake and wants to fix it. She also hosts a reality tv show, as well as serving as a news anchor. When Stu (Stephen Kunken), the head of the news division who in some ways serves as the play’s however ineffectual moral anchor, balks at the combination of “lite” and serious duties, Jennifer and Wes protest that reality tv is just as important as news-making events. The line between contrived and real, serious and stupid, smart and dumb is continually crossed in Our House, so that they finally blur indistinguishably.
Merv, the hapless villain of the play, isn’t supposed to be stupid. He’s a graduate student in an unnamed field, a character point that’s repeated with increasing sarcasm throughout the play. Yet even the presumptively smart guy spends his time glued to the screen, in awe that “tv makes people look so real,” saying he’d like to climb in and live among those he sees reflected.
That desire doesn’t make him particularly crazy, Rebeck intimates. After all, doesn’t “reality tv” invite spectators to consider themselves integral to the proceedings, asking them to vote on their favorite singer, or their least favorite member of the house,or to hear the testimonies of survivors and dog owners and other contestants in pre-arranged conflicts carefully scripted to seem real? Doesn’t even “real” news invite spectators to participate in the judgments its producers devise, posting phone numbers to call to register opinions?What’s crazy about believing what you see and hear broadcast?
Heroes rarely prevail in Theresa Rebeck’s plays, which makes her an equal opportunity playwright. While Wes and Jennifer’s corruption qualifies them as evil purveyors of material Rebeck believes poisons the national psyche, the oblivious roommates of Our House are equally culpable in their inability to note, diagnose, and prevent Merv’s breakdown. None of the characters establish a clear bead on reality or what compels people to continue living it; the dialogue in St. Louis sounds as banal as the repartee at the network.
Rebeck doesn’t pit a well adjusted, authentic heartland against a dishonest, mercenary corporation. Instead, the entire American landscape of time and space, knowledge and truth—as Wes intones at the end, backed by music reminiscent of the all-American soundscape of composer John Williams—is revealed as illusory, banal, and bereft, empty of meaning and driven only by the hollowest pursuits of fifteen minutes of fame and fortune.
Our House takes a moment to get out of the gate, but once the inciting incident occurs, the play runs as fast, furious, and unpredictable as the Kentucky Derby. Mayer uses set designer Derek McLane’s evocative environment to beautiful effect. Wes’ corporate office is drawn in grays, blacks, and transparent, hard materials that move as a unit on and off the small stage.
The disheveled St. Louis house, which rolls out from behind the closed metallic blinds that decorate Wes’ office, is filled with mismatched, stuffed sofas and chairs, and the clutter of four unrelated, not at all wealthy young people living together in a small, untidy space. The television into which Merv stares without blinking is of course positioned in the audience, so that spectators both witness and are implicated by his unnerving fascination for the illusions created for him.
The acting in Our House helps deliver Rebeck’s critique with the necessary satirical panache.Welch beautifully embodies the oily, slick Wes, who’s unaware of his own idiocy and proud of what seem to him shatteringly original and creative ideas (one of which is that Jennifer’s cleavage should be enhanced by a bra with pumps that push together her breasts). Baccarin proves a stalwart Jennifer Ramirez, bringing a bit of intelligence to a character that exists to be used and abused in exchange for the doubtful achievement of television fame.
But Jeremy Strong’s performance as Merv clinches the production’s success. Without an actor capable of shading and modulating Merv’s excesses, Our House could slip over the top into meaningless parody. Instead, Strong brings nuance and a necessary humanity to a character that could quickly become annoying. In his clear-sighted portrait of Merv’s damage—his own and the harm he inflicts—Strong reveals Rebeck’s cautionary tale: if you believe in what television broadcasts as reality, you quickly lose touch with your own.
The Feminist Spectator