THE HOUSE OF YES
Strawdog Theatre Company
It's a new and, I hope, endangered theatrical hybrid: The House of Yes by Wendy (Apocalyptic Butterflies) MacLeod is subtitled "a suburban Jacobean play." The House of Yes is certainly as grotesquely cruel as, say, The Duchess of Malfi. But MacLeod clearly wanted her campy update of the genre to work as social satire, and it doesn't.
Set during a hurricane on Thanksgiving 1988, the black comedy depicts the Pascals, an amoral upper-class Virginia family who are fixated on trying to be like their neighbors, the Kennedy clan. At the head of the twisted bunch is the matriarch, a snob who's helpless in the worst passive-aggressive way. Comparatively uncorrupted younger son Anthony is a college dropout who's woefully unready for real life. The craziest Pascal is daughter Jackie-O. Glamorous, spoiled, and insane when not medicated, she's the evil twin sister of Marty, whom Jackie-O loves with much more than sisterly affection.
Marty returns for Thanksgiving with his new fiancee, Lesly, a sweet-tempered waitress with the distinct advantage of not being a Pascal. When he blandly announces, "I love her and I'm trying to follow procedure," Jackie-O springs to claim her incestuous rights. She entices Marty into a disturbed Kennedy impersonation where she dresses like her namesake in teased wig, pillbox hat, and blood-spattered dress; brother and sister wave from an imaginary motorcade, then Marty mimes being shot as Jackie-O screams hysterically. (It's no funnier than it sounds.)
Meanwhile, timid Anthony seduces Lesly (their decency draws them together). But when Lesly tells Marty to take her back to New York, Jackie-O becomes enraged and replays the motorcade game with a vengeance.
MacLeod took the title from a grafitto she found in a New Haven bathroom: "It seemed the perfect title for a house of immorality. No one has ever said 'no' to these people." As MacLeod imagines them, the Pascals are insulated by wealth and unrepentently arrogant.
Unfortunately she hasn't imagined much more. If this weakly wrought 90-minute offering means to update the Jacobeans' condemnations of 17th-century Italian noblemen, it fails: it supplies too little social context for a class critique. Though Lesly's lower-class origins are sufficiently documented, we never learn how rich the Pascals are or how they got that way. When Lesly turns on Jackie-O and asks, "What have you done for anybody?" the indignation seems unearned; MacLeod hasn't broached the issue of the Pascals being parasites. (Emulating the Kennedys is only proof of stupidity, not of venality.)
Jane Courant's slow and creepy staging treats The House of Yes like a creepy neo-Gothic potboiler rather than an anti-Reagan diatribe. But the pot never boils; from the start the outcome is obvious. There is one touching, well-shaped scene--where Mark Hisler's sweetly inept Anthony stumbles into sex with Shannon Branham's equally innocent Lesly. That scene is one of the few where the characters relax into human beings.
Though defeated by the staging's tepid pace, the strong cast does all it can to turn easy targets into cunning stereotypes. As the regal mother, Maggie Speer combines the vaporous delicacy of O'Neill's Mary Tyrone with the hauteur Nancy Marchand brought to Lou Grant. Playing Jackie-O with demented vigor, Jamie Pachino suggests all the renegade narcissism that might lead her into incest. Paul Engelhardt plays Marty with weak-kneed imbecility.
But their hard work is wrecked by a play that seems to live only for its bloody conclusion, a Twilight Zone rip-off that resolves nothing and only exposes the hollowness of what precedes it. However much it may have hoped to indict the selfish rich, The House of Yes is all symptoms and no diagnosis.