Harrison Williams’ Glass Houses is a Rubik’s Cube of a play, a multi-layered and entertaining work of drama, the action of which is punctuated by mini-lectures from one of the main characters, Bill, a marine biologist who explains in painstaking detail his research on the fascinating Venus Flower Basket, the self-referenced metaphor of the play. The Venus Flower Basket, we are told, is a silica-based sea-sponge found in the deep waters around Japan and the Philippines. The sponge, assimilating surrounding minerals to build its glass-like structure, forms a symbiotic relationship with tiny shrimp, usually two, sometimes three or more, which it traps forever, housing, feeding and protecting them from predators in exchange for their own waste products, which it then uses to support itself and sustain its perfect crystalline biosphere. The play’s characters, as you might guess, are likened to the shrimp (um…except perhaps for the waste product part). Because the metaphor is so obvious as the central conceit of the play, it is wisely revealed right from the very start. Such self-referential analysis could quickly become tiring to an audience but, miraculously, it doesn’t, thanks to strong performances from all four actors, particularly Randy Anderson playing the campy Nick and Brian Morgan as Bill. Nick and Bill, a couple living together for more than six years, invite Nick’s former lover, Mike (DR Mann Hanson) and Mike’s new fiancée, Stef (Stephanie Farnell-Wilson), to their Hoboken apartment for dinner, and present them with an engagement gift: a nearly perfect specimen of a Venus Flower Basket. Add to the mix a few bottles of wine and the fact that Mike has never disclosed to Stef his relationship with Nick, and it’s all an easy recipe for fireworks. Fireworks do ensue. Not only is Nick still in love with Mike, but we learn that he also has an interesting association with Stef as well.
Ultimately, the play asks, “Who are the poor shrimp in this drama?” Are they Mike and Stef, embarking together on a potentially troubled life due to Mike’s bisexuality? Are they Bill and Nick, trapped in a false relationship where Nick longs for someone he can no longer possess? Are they Mike and Nick—is Mike really in love with Stef or is he in denial about his true sexual orientation? Is marriage the trap? Are relationships, straight or gay, snares by definition, quagmires of compromise? Mr. Williams suggests that all of us are trapped in some way—we all construct glass houses from our fragile beliefs about ourselves and others, denying a truth here—lying to others there—and when a crack forms in that house, whether self-inflicted or as a result of a stone thrown by another, we realize just what brittle, delicate creatures we really are. All this makes for compelling and worthy theater. At the play’s climax, Nick and Bill engage in a tense and uncomfortable confrontation that would make you turn away if the acting wasn’t so riveting.
Like mastering the Rubik’s cube, there’s always a logical and inevitable conclusion, and the play’s ending is forced, all of its pieces wrapped up too tidily. But, like the cube, the real action is in the confusion and the endless possibilities, and Glass Houses offers much for the audience to ponder about the fragile structures we build for ourselves.