★★★★ THE OPEN HOUSE, THE PRINT ROOM A tyrannical family reunion and a dramatic volte-face in Will Eno's ingenious new drama
The American family has seldom looked more desperate. Will Eno’s The Open House depicts a gathering of such dismal awfulness that it surely sets precedents for this staple element of American drama. Yet for viewers who relish humour in its most pitch-black form, and enjoy a dramatic turn-around that is as unpredictable as it is accomplished, the writer’s 2014 play (which won him the playwriting Obie award that year) is deliciously scalding.
Eno introduces his five characters, assembled for the parents’ wedding anniversary, not by name but by their role in the family, suggesting something archetypal. It’s a world, we assume, that was always dominated by Father (Greg Hicks), even before a stroke confined him to a wheelchair. Teresa Banham’s Mother (pictured below) has so long ago developed a detached resignation to her position that even the sadness has gone.
The take-over is virtually unnoticeable until its totality suddenly dawns on you
Their daughter (Lindsey Campbell) and son (Ralph Davis) have returned for this unlovely gathering, each with new developments in their own lives and to some degree still, perhaps, holding out hope that one day this family dynamic might change. A second son is referred to (even named), his absence suggesting that, for one of them at least, illusions on that front died long ago. Crispin Letts hangs in there too as the Uncle, completing the company with a benignity not deserved by his relations. The thing most urgently missing on this day, however, is the family dog (do not be alarmed, dog-lovers!).
Eno has earned a reputation as a writer you either love or loathe, and the first half of The Open House – the production runs at an uninterrupted 80 minutes – presents nay-sayers with grounds for chagrin: the unrelenting paternal barbs, the miserabilist view of life inherent in them. There’s a degree of separation from life’s reality, too: this family lives in the now, and we learn little of its connection to the world, to its past. How did it comes to this – or was it just the American way?
The dramatic absurdity is so finely tuned – no wonder Beckett is the most frequent point of comparison for Eno – the writing so razor sharp, the pauses as well as the phrases – Pinter there, too – so perfectly timed that pleasure is inevitable. There is relish both of the absurd and of absurdity as humour, and delight in language. At one point Eno throws in the word “opalescent” (new to me) and its definition, small points of shifting colour against a dark background, somehow catches the essence of his world here.
But, although the playwright has begun to orchestrate a timeline for this meeting, with departures from and expected arrivals on its scene, at a certain point it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the potential for dramatic development is limited. At which point he engineers a coup de théâtre that is as unexpected as it is skilful (there’s an almost metaphysical quality here: we derive emotional pleasure through the engagement of intellect). Sufficient to say that the denizens of this single-room set – Tom Piper’s design has a crystalline simplicity, leaving us to concentrate on the sometimes almost still forms of the actors – change almost seamlessly. The take-over is virtually unnoticeable, until its totality suddenly dawns on you.
It's a breath of fresh air for the cast, until then rather in the shadow of Greg Hicks’s more than Eeyorely curmudgeon patriarch, whose control of every nuance of language, every new facial expression nevertheless has us wincing unfailingly. The wry commentary on American life continues, the targets simply changed. Talking Heads’ "Once in a Lifetime” comes to mind: Same as it ever was, same as it ever was...
There’s a surgical precision to Michael Boyd’s production, transferring (like the Print Room’s recent Trouble in Mind) from Theatre Royal Bath with that accrued poise of playing that shows an ensemble totally at ease. The Coronet’s large stage is a joy in itself these days too, such a residual sense of theatre evident in its gloriously tatty walls. Which makes this Open House an invitation too good to miss.