House of Cards

Two brothers engaged in sibling friction is familiar territory for American drama. From Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night to Arthur Miller's The Price and Sam Shepard's True West to the recent Neil LaBute play In a Dark Dark House, fraternal jealousies have provided potent theatrical fodder. In Padraic Lillis's Two Thirds Home, Paul, a poet and teacher, and his brother, Michael, a businessman, enter their childhood home to gather important papers. The house is now inhabited by Sue, the woman whom their mother, Anne, shared her life with for more than a decade. It's the day of Anne's funeral, which has gone bumpily for both men.

Ryan Woodle's Michael, the older brother, is efficient and bossy, and it's no surprise that various resentments fester within him. Aaron Roman Weiner's long absent Paul is swept away by nostalgia about the house and a rosy childhood. But there is some tension between them about their career paths and monetary success; Michael snipes at Paul for pursuing a creative but not lucrative profession. And because Anne never publicly acknowledged her relationship with Sue (played with sympathy and composure and the patience of age by Peggy J Scott), Michael grew up believing it was shameful, and he treats Sue with brusque indifference. They have clearly been at odds and only sidelined their strife during Anne's dying days.

Lillis examines the relationships among these three characters from every possible angle, in a claustrophobic way that draws, perhaps unconsciously, on French neoclassicism. Certainly Two Thirds Home observes Aristotle's unities. There is a single set, on which designer Laura Jellinek prominently showcases Anne's love of books and of family (in photographs). (Jellinek's shrewd design suggests a large, comfortable home in an unbelievably small space, with doors leading to other rooms, and a stairway to a second level.)

As in neoclassical tragedy, the time is continuous. Literary references, from Rilke and John Donne to James Joyce's Ulysses, would have pleased the French academy of the 17th century. If Jean Racine were writing nowadays, he'd recognize a lot of what Lillis is doing, though the lesbianism would have sent him through the roof. Each facet of each relationship is revealed gradually through dialogue.

But Racine is an acquired taste, and unless one acquires it, such drama can feel talky and sluggish. Lillis doesn't entirely escape that pitfall, although the cast assembled and directed superbly by Giovanna Sardelli is outstanding enough to maintain interest in the characters even when the talk sounds repetitive and the plotting seems farfetched. For example, Anne has left the house to be divided equally among her sons and Sue. But if Anne and Sue were together for more than a decade, why didn't Anne make a clear provision for Sue to remain in the house until her death before having the property revert to her sons?

Lillis needs this improbable situation for dramatic conflict—Michael wants to buy out Sue and sell the house, while Paul indulges in a pipe dream of returning and living there. Sue, like many gay spouses, seems marginalized and at their mercy; unfortunately, their clandestine intrusion into the house also betrays a monumental lack of basic manners. The situation ends up diminishing Paul, Michael, and even Anne.

Still, the play tackles important questions about the guilt that arises from avoiding discussion of subjects deemed taboo and the way it can poison relationships. Lillis has a gift for dialogue and an ability to put interesting characters in fresh situations, and his examination of personal privacy versus one's willingness to be open about sexual orientation touches on an issue that resonates deeply among gays and their straight relatives. He's a writer to follow.

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