“People can be barbaric,” says Mother in The Open House—a supremely ironic remark given the poisonous familial atmosphere in Will Eno’s new play. The matriarch has gathered with her family in their living room, but it’s Father (Peter Friedman), in a wheelchair, who dominates with his malignity. Visiting Son and Daughter are sitting on the sofa, unsettled; and Uncle (brother to Father) is standing uneasily to the rear.
In the long following scene, Father belittles and insults those around him. For example, recollecting the day he met Mother, he relates a story of a beautiful girl he saw in his youth, then turns it on its head: “On the way home I met your mother here.” Though it occurs early, Eno has so firmly established Father’s nastiness that one can see the twist coming. The man enjoys belittling others; it’s no wonder his family frequently retreats to speechlessness. Director Oliver Butler gives Pinteresque weight to the silences, and Friedman modulates the patriarch’s passive-aggressive attitudes with aplomb.
His influence has unexpected comic effects. Presented an anniversary present from her two children—a third, Richard, is absent, and no wonder—Carolyn McCormick’s Mother thanks them and then puts it unopened on the floor next to her. Is it a reflexive recognition that its opening will only give her husband an opportunity for more abuse?
Midway through the play, a turnaround begins, as the family characters leave and are replaced by a new set of people (played by the same actors). Father has put the house on the market, and the real estate agent, Anna (Hannah Bos, who was Daughter), arrives to prep it.
Soon a possible buyer, Tom, arrives (Michael Countryman, who doubles as Uncle). Then a workman named Brian (the Son reinvented) and eventually Melissa (McCormick), Tom’s wife. They are busy, cheerful, actively involved in life. Father has no power over them, and he is no longer the center of attention; he is, in fact, often ignored. The arrivals have their own preoccupations; they are chatty and outgoing and alive, and the door, closed at the start, is left wide open.
When Father tries to throw his weight around, Tom calls him on it, refusing to let him play the disability card. “I might threaten an asshole who’s a bully in a wheelchair,” he says. “Don’t you use language like that in here,” Father snaps. “I’ll say any word I know,” responds Tom. Friedman’s character gradually shrivels in his chair until he’s rendered helpless by the turn of events he has instigated.
Eno seems to be making the point that emotional abuse can only exist if one allows it to and mollifies the abuser, but the play suffers from its schematic structure. As soon as Bos reenters as Anna, one suspects where things are heading. It is cathartic to see Father get his comeuppance, but one wishes the play didn't rely so much on the actors’ skillful doubling, and strained credibility just a bit less.
Will Eno’s The Open House plays through March 23 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. From March 3-9 the evening performance schedule is Monday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. From March 11 through 23 the evening performance schedule is Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees throughout the run are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available by calling the Signature Theatre Company at (212) 244-7529 or online at www.signaturetheatre.org.