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Glenda Frank

“Our House”

“Our House” by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Michael Mayer.
Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42 St., NYC.

Opens June 9 - June 21, 2009.
by Glenda Frank

A new comedy by Theresa Rebeck is always an event to celebrate. “Our House” at Playwrights Horizons is a razor-edged incision into our modern psyche and our obsession with television reality shows. The gunshot that closes Act I may seem to come out of nowhere, but Rebeck’s reference isn’t the well-made play but the news, the Columbine massacres and other sudden, violent assaults that have bewildered communities and became national headlines.

The play opens in the seat of power – a media mogul’s sleek, almost bare office (Derek McLane, set), where Wes (Christopher Evan Welch) greets his favorite newscaster Jennifer (Morena Baccarin), super-slim and charismatic, by telling her to take a seat. But there is only one chair – his. He pontificates. She flirts. They are in bed with each other – as both metaphor and stage action. Their encounter sizzles with power ploys and passion – and lots of talk about network news -- in an aerie floating somewhere over where the rest of us live. Later the news director (Stephen Kunken) enters this sleek world talking integrity and values and almost gets fired. But he’s indispensable, and he knows where the bodies are buried.

And then Rebeck drops us back down into the hard-scrabble world of middle-class America, a world full of grimy challenges and frustration. Although there are four squabbling 20-something roommates in the house, no one is comfortably making the monthly nut. The mismatched furniture is falling apart. Merv (Jeremy Strong), one of the roomies, is a zoned-out couch potato, one an over-stressed control freak (Katie Kreisler) – and they go at each other, pushing all the buttons they can find.

The relationship between the high-end television planners and the viewers, the lowest common denominator, is what makes the play tick. The tone is light, satirical, even comical but the stakes are high. Life itself is on the line at one end – and ratings and jobs at the other. Rebeck is an expert hand at this kind of conflict. She knows how to keep it all flowing, provocative, and clean as a bull’s eye.

After the gunshot that ends Act I, we anticipate the media frenzy that joins the two worlds. Wes’s manipulated reality show about a house with roommates who are slowly voted off is replaced by news coverage of the Midwest house with its four real people. Merv is willing to release his hostages only to Jennifer, his favorite TV anchor. Wes, who never distinguishes between entertainment and news, smells high ratings, and sends an eager Jennifer to cover the story live. When she makes her own news, Wes goes from smitten to in love. He also admires the media savvy of the young sociopath and, before the police haul the murdered off, he promises he’ll be in touch. What could be a happier ending to a reality TV show?

Rebeck’s satire is a joy, familiar and shocking at once. It nudges uncomfortably close to our lives, then veers away into fantasy. The pretty , well-dressed power-brokers win. Their arrival glamorizes messy everyday life, and we are part of it.

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