Theresa Rebeck's black comedy Our House is smart and timely, and makes a serious point in a highly comic way. But much of the dialogue in the first half — little jabs about Prada, wine-tasting ("pear, some floral, maybe some crushed stone") and the general idiocy of television news ("apple martinis are over") — seems obvious, and the plot comes apart long before the play ends.
The antagonists are Jennifer Ramirez, a glamorous news anchor tasked by her irascible network head — who's also her lover — with moderating a reality show called Our House, and Mervin, a slack-jawed graduate student in St. Louis who's obsessed with the show. After shooting two of his housemates following a confrontation over Jennifer's show, Merv demands that she come to St. Louis and cover the story. Hungry for ratings, she soon appears at his door.
All the characters are two-dimensional mouthpieces for Rebeck, although the fierce energy of her writing somewhat mitigates this. Jennifer is empty-headed and narcissistic, Merv so inured to violence by television that he's completely unfazed by the groans and gasps of his roommates, the puddles of blood spreading beneath their wounded bodies. Network head Wes is an ignorant blowhard who hates news, loves profits and considers ignorance the inalienable right of all Americans. And white-haired Stu, who heads the news division, veers between placating his boss and pitching a halfhearted defense of his reporters, 700 of whom lose their jobs over the course of the play. Since FCC regulations decree a certain amount of news coverage on the public airwaves, his own job is protected.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 16, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Once in the house, Jennifer shows no interest in the bloodied bodies — which I'm sure is part of Rebeck's point — but she also manifests neither shrewdness nor amusing ignorance about how to play the story. She's just passive. Merv, on the other hand, does change: He becomes a critic — an incisive, well-informed and judgmental critic, at that. The man who was so in thrall to Our House that he warred with the roommate who wanted to turn it off, and whose first thought after committing mayhem was to invite a television anchor to mediate, is now contemptuous of both Jennifer and television in general because "it's so moronic. And noisy. And it blocks out all that other stuff that you don't tell us that might save us." He also has points to make about the ready availability of guns in the United States, and the fact that it was our government that armed al-Qaeda. Sure, I wanted to stand up and applaud these comments, but there was no way I could believe that dopey Merv was making them. And even as I tried to muster some kind of rationale for his transformation — something along the lines of Merv morphing because the camera was on him and he was becoming who he thought he should be for the audience — my confidence in what I was watching rapidly eroded.
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This is not the only violation of realism. The play is staged in the round, so there's no way to separate the New York scenes from those set in St. Louis. At first, people from the two disparate worlds are completely unaware of each other. But at some point, you realize that the New Yorkers are actually watching and responding to the St. Louis students. The line gets crossed more and more as the action proceeds, until the characters are handing each other objects and touching. This is doubtless meant to suggest the way infotainment and reality shows make us incapable of distinguishing life from television, but it's distracting. Time and again, Rebeck misses opportunities for genuine drama, and the ending feels tacked on rather than organic.
Despite the one-dimensionality of the characters, the performances are solid. Molly Ward gives Jennifer a spiky energy, and Rob Campbell is convincing as Merv. Danny Mastrogiorgio makes a lively, perpetually apopleptic Wes; Jonathan Fried is calm and tired as the news director; Haynes Thigpen and Suzy Jane Hunt are amusingly naturalistic as two of Merv's roommates. And Kate Nowlin actually manages to give Alice, the roommate who yearns for a quiet country existence, a hint of genuine life and pathos.
Our House received a staged reading at the Denver Center Theatre Company's New Play Festival last year, and it's one of three original plays commissioned for a full production this season. At ninety minutes, it makes for a brief, amusing evening, but it doesn't accomplish what it sets out to do. Rebeck addresses an issue fundamental to our democracy — the fact that even as Americans kill and are killed overseas, their compatriots at home remain ignorant, narcotized by the blend of trivia and irrelevant fact that passes for news — and black comedy is certainly the best vehicle for addressing it. But black comedy needs to be daring and imaginative, to get us laughing uncontrollably, then stop us mid-guffaw when we realize exactly what we're laughing at. Our House may have that potential, but right now it's pretty much just clever talk.