1980s, addiction, American Gothic, Anthony Aranda, Asperger's Syndrome, Bay Area theatre, Beth Hall, Black Widow, blue bloods, Bourgeois, Bourgeoisie, Caitlin Evenson, Casey Robbins, Cat Knight, classism, comedy, elitism, Elliot Lieberman, female playwright, Femme Fatale, gothic horror, honey pot, incest, independent theatre, indie theatre, Jackie O Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy-Onassis, Jay Yamada, JFK John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Juliana Lustenader, Kathleen Qiu, Kennedy Assassination, Marilyn Monroe, Mark Waters, medication, mental illness, Nicola McCarthy, psychiatric help, Reagan Era, rich bitch, Richard Gutierrez, Ryan Lee Short, San Francisco, San Francisco theatre, sangres azules, satire, self-harm, Seth Beockman, Shelley Lynn Johnson, Sophia Craven, Stuart Bousel, The Custom Made Theatre Company, The House of Yes, The One Percent, theatre, Theatre review, toxic relationship, under-medicated, Union Square, upper-class, Wendy MacLeod, White privilege, women playwrights, Zoe Rosenfeld
“(White Lines) Visions, dreams of passion
(Blowing through my mind) And all the while I think of you
(High price) A very strange reaction
(For us to unwind) The more I see, the more I do”
– Melle Mel, “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1983)
For the second time in almost a week, I found myself sitting in an overly-air conditioned theatre wondering if the frigid atmosphere was a commentary on the material I was about to see. Whereas the cold temperature before Shotgun’s Nora suggested the play’s Norwegian winter setting, those of us there to see The House of Yes were mercifully spared any other hurricane-like conditions from the comforts of our seats. Still, the design of Zoe Rosenfeld and Nicola McCarthy’s set gives off an inherently “cold” feeling, with its shades of dark gray, black, and blue that together gave a very “gunmetal” feel.
But after you’ve visually absorbed all of the little details – including the old-timey silhouette portraits hanging next to a mirror with an obscured glass (hint, hint) – that I eventually began to consider another condition that results in chills: the DTs. That’s a feeling I wasn’t expecting. After all, I’d seen the acclaimed film adaptation of House of Yes, for which Tori Spelling was nominated for a Razzie (she isn’t… that bad; I mean, how she got a nomination and Freddie Prinze didn’t, I’ll never know). As adapted and directed by Mark Waters, the film is a nice-if-inconsequential footnote of both Parker Posey’s career and the ‘90s indie film boom in which she thrived. As seen on stage, as originally intended, the play is a satirical American gothic tale about elitism, mental illness, and addiction.
The agony and ecstasy of addiction.
It’s Thanksgiving 1983 and Mrs. Pascal’s children will be under the same posh roof for the first time in a long time. For the mentally unstable Jackie-O and the neurotically insecure Anthony, the return of their brother Marty (Jackie’s fraternal twin) should be the stabilizing presence the house desperately needs. Of course, that plan goes right out the window Marty arrives with an unexpected guest: his fiancée Lesley.
As a hurricane rages outdoors, the real tempest is happening indoors. Between Jackie going off her meds, Anthony’s hormones raging out of control, Marty losing his composure, and Mrs. Pascal hitting the sauce, the Pennsylvania-borne Lesley may have been better off in the storm outside.
Before I go into detail, it’s only right to mention that I’ve collaborated with numerous members of the cast and crew before. With that out of the way, there was one moment that so resonated with me I had to take a breath. It’s when the storm is raging and Marty (Casey Robbins) is being tempted by Kennedy-obsessed twin, Jackie (Caitlin Evenson). She walks out of the room knowing full well he’ll be there when she walks back in, like a bug caught in a spider web. It’s when she’s gone that Marty stands in the doorway, wiping his hand across his face and trying to hold himself up. Logically, he could walk away, but the look on his face says he won’t. It’s a look I’ve seen before. Jackie is his addiction and he’s about to relapse.
The themes of addiction and reflection pop up a lot in this play: as twins, Marty and Jackie reflect one another; Lesley comments on Anthony’s resemblance to Marty; and, of course, Lesley and Jackie (both played by blonde actresses) serve as funhouse-mirror versions of one another. It can’t be a coincidence that as Jackie-O’s rival for Marty, Lesley (played by Juliana Lustenader, with costumes Kathleen Qiu), bares more than a passing resemblance to a certain blonde starlet rumored to have romanced the husband of that other “Jackie O.”. Watching and listening to these two have a rapid-fire back-and-forth is one of the play’s hilarious highlights.
Speaking of which, I had no idea this story was meant to be a comedy. As much as I admired Water’s film, it wasn’t at all funny, just depressing. For instance, when Posey-as-Jackie screams over Mark’s engagement, it’s just uncomfortably awkward. Bousel wisely decides to find all the comedic highs of this show, whether it consists of snide comments about one’s (lack of) sexual prowess, or thunder following Jackie the way a horse’s neigh follows Frau Blücher. When it’s done here – started by Evenson and picked up by Lustenader – it leads to a side-splitting moment felt through the entire audience. The last script Bousel directed, Clive Barker’s Paradise Street, was comedic the way square pegs take to round holes. MacLeod’s script, by contrast, is a much better choice allows the director to be equally gut-busting and unapologetically morbid.
In talking about the cast, I’ll focus on the two actors whom, to my knowledge, I’ve never before seen perform. The first of whom is Shelley Lynn Johnson as Mrs. Pascal, mother to Jackie, Marty, and Anthony. She does well with a character that doesn’t seem to fit into the pattern of the other four (which is to say she doesn’t appear to reflect anyone), but her presence in the final scenes reveals her to be the biggest enabler of Marty’s addiction to Jackie. For a drunken upper-class woman written post-Edward Albee/pre-Malory Archer, Johnson makes Mrs. Pascal her own.
Then, of course, there’s Elliot Lieberman as Anthony, the youngest Pascal sibling. The character clearly suffers from some sort of arrested development, and Lieberman plays him almost like a chimp finding objects in the jungle it can’t explain – only able to act instinctively rather than logically. Watching Lieberman, I was reminded of that line from Silicon Valley: “this [..] guy is definitely on the end of some spectrum.” But since whatever condition he has is never identified (nor is Jackie’s ever named), we’re expected to believe there’s something endearing about way he stares down Lesley with bug-eyed lust. That isn’t a knock towards Lieberman, I just think Anthony should wear a shock-collar at all times.
As mentioned above, the design of the set serves the setting well. Under full lights, it occasionally looks as if the set had been painted to resemble an old black-and-white film. When Jackie first cosplays as her namesake, her blood-stained recreation of the famous pink faux-Chanel suit noticeably pops against the intentionally drab colors of the house. Sophia Craven’s lights further add to the atmosphere. And if you’ve read some of my recent reviews, you’ll know why I enjoyed Ryan Lee Short’s sound design. He mercifully spares us from the low-frequency drone that has plagued many recent Bay Area productions by choosing natural sounds and a “score” that seems to consist of a few taps on wind chimes or a triangle. I think the sound of the outside storm could have been more persistent (it’s right to die out during the more dreamlike scenes, but a subtle presence would probably do well throughout), but it’s otherwise good work.
By the time Little Peggy March’s version of “I Will Follow Him” wraps up the show, the cycle of Marty’s condition has come full-circle. He’s given a moment when Lesley, who has just committed faux pas that pales in comparison, reminds him of the joy of sobriety away from Jackie and the family. Every sober memory makes him more and more happy, until he seemingly finds the strength to quit for good. Unfortunately, he falls into the trap from which most never recover: that one last hit.
Though The House of Yes is, on its surface, about elitism and class struggle, those serve only as subterfuge for a darkly comic tale of why the things that are bad for us are so alluring to begin with. Served well by an energetic cast and crew, this production is almost as tempting. Thankfully for us in the audience, the final bow isn’t as likely to leave us with permanent scars. At least, not as many.
The House of Yes is running until the 29th of April at 533 Sutter.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.