[The following contains spoilers.]
Brian Parks’ “The House” is originally from New York and it now inhabits the Assembly George Square Studios, along with a fine new transatlantic cast. It is a play in a single scene and with a single, eponymous setting. The Redmonds (David Calvitto and Pauline Goldsmith), a pensionable married couple, are at last handing over the keys of their beloved family home to the Libetts (Oliver Tilney and Alex Sunderhaus), two brash and acquisitional whippersnappers. Things are already a little off: the Redmonds are not using an estate agent because they wish to recruit the perfect candidates to live in their house, as though they were “marrying off a daughter”; whilst the Libetts are apparently paying for their purchase in cash.
Yet the most ominous factor is the steady, almost hypnotic politeness of the meeting. The story begins fairmindedly, as though it has been authored by Shirley Jackson. Its true aesthetic is not the quaint, how-do-ye-do cheeriness of the housewarmers but the awkward pauses in between. Once the story has commenced its own equivalent of Jackson’s rock hurling, it draws upon an almost amazing talent for engineering chaos and hilarity. At some point the realism slinks away, unseen, and we are left with purely cartoon capers. The Redmonds and the Libetts are reduced to something like Tom and Jerry, or rather to four equally disastrous Toms, as they insult, attack, belittle and accidentally injure each other, sometimes all with the same hand movement.
“The House” proves to be a wise farce. It works so well because the combatants initially look plausibly dignified and as if they are not really physically capable of the bad behaviour that such a set-up requires of them. We are thus delighted and scandalised with each new leap into clowning.
Inter-generational home-ownership is a big, topical theme but this play does not really take the trouble to say anything worthwhile about it. There is, however, some nicely symmetrical symbolism involving fire. At the start, Fischer Libett announces that one of the most attractive features of this house is the mantel and he gestures at us. We, the audience, are sitting in the fireplace and we are presumably the fire. Later, without wishing to give too much away, the fire returns and we are out of our seats. Maybe our applause sounds like rising flames? “The House” – and I should really issue another spoiler alert here – ends with them playing Talking Heads rather than Stuart Hamblen.
I think that I am allowed to mistreat “The House” a little because it has taken some liberties and it is being rather naughty itself. It is officially advertised as “new writing,” but it is not original to the Fringe, or even to this year, having been first performed in 2014. It is in high peril of being compared to its own sneaky characters, the Redmonds, who also fail to give prospective buyers the full picture.
Another criticism is that “The House” is slightly longer than is normal in a farce. I felt that twenty or so minutes of zingers could have been randomly cut from the script without causing any significant harm, but perhaps they are worried about disturbing this play’s rather delicate fluctuations in tone and rhythm. These are quibbles, though, and they surely won’t knock anything off the asking price. The foundations are solid and I’m sold.
[N.B. Different sources disagree on the names of the younger family. I’m sticking with my earliest assumption that Fischer is a forename.]