The House In Town

  • Date:
    June 1, 2006
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman

    Written by: Richard Greenberg
    Directed by: Doug Hughes
    Cast: Becky Ann Bake , Dan Bittner, Mark Harelik, Jessica Hecht and Armand Schultz.
    Synopsis: The time is New Year�s Eve, 1929. In an elegant New York brownstone on 'Millionaire�s Row' (West 23rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues), Mr. and Mrs. Sam Hammer bid their last few guests farewell with a parting wish: 'A better year ahead.' But, as that pivotal year begins, the shadow of the enormous London Terrace apartment complex under construction looms over the their home. The shadow also portends Wall Street�s impending collapse, and the growing strain upon the Hammer�s marriage.
     

    I've been so disappointed lately with Richard Greenberg's plays, that I forgot what a gifted playwright he really is. His last three plays ("Naked Girl on the Appian Way," "Three Days of Rain," and "The Violet Hour") were so unsatisfying -- part fascinating, part muddled, and part dumb -- that I was going to categorize him as a one-work wonder, referring, of course, to his Tony-winning play, "Take Me Out."

    Then I reread my reviews of some of his earlier works and I remembered. "Hurrah at Last," "The Dazzle," and "Everett Beekin" so impressed me because of the depth and originality of his thinking, and the way he used the past as the setting for his universal ideas, that I can say, without equivocation, that I'm back in his fan club.

    His newest play, with the innocuous title of "The House in Town," is an exquisite story about the razing of a marriage: quiet at first, as with the inaudible cracking of a house's walls. Then in small, incremental bits of destruction, the foundation shifts, the roof tiles slip, and finally, a wrecker's ball brings the house crashing to the ground.

    It's Amy who knows there's something wrong in her marriage though she never directly expresses it. At 50, she remains elegant and enchanting, devoted and deferential to her handsome and wealthy husband, Sam. It is early winter in 1929, a gay time in the country about to suffer another kind of crash, and proper married women who could afford a life of leisure, didn't work.

    With nothing to do, no children to raise, and "the Irish" looking after the house, Amy spends her time observing and thinking. She's still surprised at herself for marrying a Jew, loves her luxurious townhouse on Millionaire's Row yet is obsessed with finding a country house she thinks she once saw -- or maybe dreamed about, and wonders why Sam has taken so much interest in the shy Christopher, a student who works in his department store.

    Christopher's mother worked for Sam and was killed while crossing the street. Now the young man is alone and Sam worries that he never really dealt with the death of his mother. A dinner is planned for Christopher and Sam takes the opportunity to push him into confronting his loneliness. When he breaks down in tears, Sam holds him lovingly -- and we wonder.

    Amy's confidante is Jean, a straight-talking, down-to-earth woman who always manages to shoehorn reality into Amy's reveries. Right now, Amy's most urgent concerns are her "changes" which she denies, her sexless marriage though she and Sam have just "resumed," and her belief that she's pregnant. Jean insists that Amy visit Con, her obstetrician-husband, and it is there that Amy learns more than she wanted to know.

    Her dreams crumbled, Amy confronts Sam with suspicions she's had about their marriage, and his relationship with Christopher, and when Sam finally tells all, the razing is complete.

    This shattering story not only examines destructive silence and secrets are to a marriages, but deftly weaves in (though only at a cursory level) the anti-Semitism of the time and the faceless roles of the Irish servants who were always nameless.

    Enhancing this intelligent script is John Lee Beatty's stunning townhouse set located in today's Chelsea section of Manhattan, Catherine Zuber's stylish frocks of the '20s, and Jessica's Hecht's stunning performance as Amy. Supported by Mark Harelik as Sam, Becky Ann Baker and Armand Schultz as their friends, Jean and Con, and Dan Bittner as Christopher, "The House in Town" is the smartest and most satisfying play of the new season.

    What the critics had to say.....

    CHARLES ISHERWOOD of the NEW YORK TIMES: �The play meanders to its glum conclusion without engaging us on either an emotional or an intellectual level.�

    FRANK SCHECK of the NEW YORK POST: "You can feel Greenberg straining to provide a contemporary resonance to his tale, the culmination of which reaches melodramatic proportions. But ultimately, the characters and situations come across as an awkward attempt to deliver a modern equivalent to the sort of period drama in which bold themes needed to be expressed through subtle euphemisms."

    JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of NEW YORK DAILY: says "There's an underdeveloped feel from the prolific playwright. The story here is about a townhouse, but Greenberg has provided enough substance to fill only an alcove studio. It is (Jessica) Hecht who captivates in the play's tricky centerpiece role, morphing from a woman with a fuzzy, far-away quality to her voice to one who barks in fury with cutting precision. It's enough to rock the front door of that fancy manse off its hinges.And it's reason enough to go to "Town "

    MICHAEL SOMMERS of the STAR-LEDGER: "A surprisingly empty effort, 'The House in Town' is a yawn as it meanders along and seems pointless in retrospect."

    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says: "It can't be easy to live with a man who says after a party, "As each evening ends, a little grief," instead of goodnight. Then again, he's married to a woman who believes she is destined to live in a country house she saw in a dream. No wonder Greenberg seems to have lost interest before they have finished."

    JACQUES LE SOURD of JOURNAL NEWS: "Despite the best efforts of director Doug Hughes ("Doubt"), it seems that the playwright just doesn't know what to do with characters who long ago stopped breathing."

    ROBERT FELDBERG of THE RECORD: "A drama that's consistently interesting, though never quite believable.

    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of the ASSOCIATED PRESS says "Amy Hammer, the central character in Richard Greenberg's elusive new drama, undergoes a profound change during the course of the play. But by the time the curtain falls, she remains as frustratingly mysterious as ever - an unsatisfying creation in a puzzling evening of theater. And that's too bad, because the theatrical potential is great."

    ALEXIS GREENE of HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: "A tightly constructed drama subtly propelled by the central character and her discoveries."

    DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY says "Harelik conveys complexity, and Baker brings bite to some of the script's better lines, but the play has a ponderous, artificial feel that prevents the characters from taking shape."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    New York Times
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    NewsDay
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    Hollywood Reporter
    Associated Press
    Variety