Accidentally Edwardian, A Melodrama Rambles On

The Lincoln Center production of Richard Greenberg’s The House in Town could have been staged more or less anywhere. It’s at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, but it—and we—might easily have been at the Manhattan Theatre Club or Mr. Greenberg’s last venue, the Roundabout on Broadway.

Our leading not-for-profit theaters blur into each other in their culturally corporate way. The directors are as interchangeable as the playwrights. Today Doug Hughes, tomorrow Joe Mantello. It makes little or no difference who directs. Mr. Hughes’ production of The House in Town, which is set ominously in the first months of 1929, is over-careful, ponderous even, certainly unexciting. It is in itself anonymously generic, and, above all, it’s safe.

The stodgy staging of the play possesses no real sense of vitality or period. It’s merely stylized. The actors, though capable, are self-consciously arch and mannered (which in turn passes for a period style). We’re locked in the ersatz good taste of old-fashioned Masterpiece Theatre. And so it goes.

To break with the deadening cycle of corporate culture for the thinking classes, we need artistic directors with enough daring to shake subscribers from their dozy expectations. And we need far, far better plays than the prolific Mr. Greenberg has given us here.

Whilst it’s no secret that I’m unable to regard his scattershot work as highly as some—Mr. Brantley puts him on the pinnacle as our leading playwright with Tony Kushner—this has indeed been a bummer of a year for Mr. Greenberg. His annus horribilis began with his intended light comedy, the pretentiously titled A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, which was dismissed even by his biggest fans as stereotypical and slapdash—a TV soap about tired generation wars. Then came his fortunate alliance with Julia Roberts and the recent Broadway revival of Three Days of Rain—a box-office hit that triggered unflattering reappraisals of the early play. The House in Town is no better. It’s accidental Edwardian melodrama—a rambling, overblown domestic saga striving much too hard for significance. Some of it even stretches credulity. This is the first time I’ve heard that the habit of scratching your eyebrow is genetic. A plot twist actually hinges on it.

Mr. Greenberg’s plays are typically wordy, meandering in a form of dramatic blogging. The playwright promises the rich delights of intoxicating Stoppardian ideas, but he lacks Mr. Stoppard’s wit and talent for surface depths. The overwrought House in Town is about an unhappy, childless marriage that’s intended to serve as a metaphor for disintegrating America. But it’s all shallow and it’s all talk.

Only Mr. Greenberg could have his painfully winsome heroine, the well-bred Amy from Saratoga, announce stuff like this to her husband as if it were poetically meaningful: “Whenever I see myself happy in the future, I’m sitting down.”

Her upright husband Sam, a parvenu Jew given to staring broodily into the fireplace, responds politely that he doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. “But I love you that I don’t,” he replies, confusingly.

Is Amy nuts? I thought so, though I think Mr. Greenberg intends her to be a romantic misfit in an unfair world. But she’s more of an irritating scatterbrain who’s played by Jessica Hecht as a grim dreamer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She sounds impressive, perhaps, with her loopy, foreboding pronouncements like, “There’s a robin redbreast in that sycamore, while someone lies maimed in your parlor.”

The play is set in a townhouse on Millionaires’ Row, on 23rd Street between Ninth and 10th avenues. Amy’s successful husband (Mark Harelik) owns a department store, and he declaims too. Here’s his opaque assessment of a visit to the theater: “The people of the play kept entering and exiting— that was to accent the horizontal …. What it was saying was that the traffic of the street had been extended through these bodies into the room. That what the modern age has given us is a drawing inside of the life of the street.”

And what exactly does that mean? It’s gibberish, another of Mr. Greenberg’s garbled, approximate thoughts meant to suggest the possibilities of the American century. But we fail to connect with his sketchy, aimless characters and his crowded checklist of token “ideas” that include random remarks on illegal abortion, political violence, social snobbery, anti-Semitism, circumcision, De Profundis and Anglophile architecture.

But all that is window-dressing. The soft, central shakiness of the play is revealed by its early descent into a melodrama masquerading as an Ibsen tragedy. Warning! I am about to reveal who’s maimed in the parlor.

Everyone is, actually—except for the abortionist’s gossipy, venal wife. There’s firstly the pro forma canard that Amy’s devoted husband, Sam, is secretly gay. The shock! The shame! (The tedium.) “It had to happen,” he says to 17-year-old Christopher, holding him tight. “It has to be like this.”

But wait! Sam isn’t gay. Nor is Christopher, an orphan whose mother was run over by a taxicab. The mother worked devotedly for Sam for many years, and Christopher is … their child! He scratches his eyebrow as Sam does, and indeed Sam’s father before him.

Meanwhile, neurotic Amy hates snow because it lacks precision and dreams of buying a country house without a view. Trouble ensues when she believes she’s become pregnant by her sexually remote husband. But in fact she’s dying of an incurable disease.

Before she kicks the bucket, however, she discovers that her husband is Christopher’s dad—when he scratches his eyebrow—and kicks him out of the house. “It’s the last phase of me,” Amy cries, bewilderingly. “It’s the version of me that’s learned a little bit. I’ve never in my life owned a single thing. My body never gave me what I asked of it; even my marriage was a sale. Now, at long last, I’m going to have something.”

“What, though?” the dim Sam asks earnestly. “What will you have?”

“My death,” she replies. “And your absence.”

A moment later, a door slams. She shuts her eyes and takes a breath. And … curtain.