New House Under Construction is a puzzling play, perhaps because it feels like several different plays in one. Alan Hruska has built his plot around four characters comprising two couples. However, the members of each couple, and what each character wants, undergo as many revolutions as the set of the title. It’s enough to give the audience a case of whiplash. It doesn’t help matters much that the playwright’s characters play an odd game of give-and-take with the audience of 59E59 Theaters. Almost from start to finish, Hruska has every character exposit startling amounts of his or her history through their dialogue, spelling out major details from their lives. But they withhold important kernels of information that would be beneficial to the development of the play, giving the audience no real reason to connect to anyone in the show.
For instance, why are Trevor (Anthony Crane) and Tony (Kevin Isola) lifelong rivals? And if so, why are they still in close contact? Information like this would go a long way toward explaining why Trevor is building a new house for the man. Trevor, who appears to be the play’s lead, or at least its most sympathetic character, is a short story writer who moonlights as an architect. Though married to Judy (Nancy Lemenager), Trevor years ago dated Sarah (Shannon Koob), who is now married to Tony.
Hruska may play mum on that subject, but he doles out plenty of other tidbits. Judy admits to Sarah that she has sexual feelings for her, and is interested in pursuing them. Judy tells Trevor that she used to see Tony, and still has feelings for him. Tony reveals to Trevor that at age nineteen, Sarah aborted the child she had conceived with Trevor. (This particular unveiled secret holds a lot of dramatic potential that remains unrealized.)
Both couples swap partners, and in the space of one of Hruska’s overused scene changes, an entire year has passed. But it isn’t that Hruska, who also directs the play, hasn’t given his audience time to catch their breath. Rather, the problem is that the audience is never breathless in the first place. The revelations come so quickly and so early that they are rendered meaningless.
Perhaps sensing that Construction needed additional shaping, Hruska then introduces a fifth character to shift the entire play in a new direction. Sam Coppola is Manny, an analyst for, ultimately, all four of his fellow characters. It is unclear what Hruska tries to accomplish with the addition of this therapist, aside from creative laziness. Giving each character a sounding board allows them to soliloquize everything that is on their mind, thus merely stating what is going on inside their heads instead of playing those emotions.
Construction makes yet another tonal shift rather late in the game, when Sarah and Trevor are and always have been married, and Judy and Tony are currently married for the second-go-round. Sarah and Tony are trying to adopt a baby, and Judy and Tony find themselves in a position to assist them. These scenes are a case of too little too late, but are also a source of confusion. Have we entered an alternate reality? Is this a dream? Is everything that preceded it a figment of one character’s imagination? Instead of adding up to a creative aggregate, Hruska’s creative manipulations only serve to fragment the play.
The five performances go a long way toward strengthening Construction. Crane makes Trevor as full-bodied a character as he can with his limited material. I genuinely cared for him; I felt sorry for him when he felt deprived, and was happy when his character seemed to be so. Both Koob and Lemenager are stuck playing conceits. Neither Judy nor Sarah is a person one might encounter in the real world; they merely exist and say things to move the play forward. However, both actresses imbue their characters with nuance and credibility where they can to suggest the possibility that these women might actually possess emotions like desire and regret.
Isola has a more challenging job, since Tony is such a dolt. He’s a substance-abusing womanizer who doesn’t care who he hurts with his brutal words. Unlike the other three leads, Tony possesses no sympathy factor. Despite the many changes affecting his character, he remains unfazed and unchanged. There never seems to be anything lurking beneath the surface. Coppola, on the other hand, plays Manny, and, later, a representative from the adoption agency, taking straightforward characters and adding layers of compassion and understanding.
Hruska would have done good to turn a more objective eye to his play and do a more aggressive editing job. The scribe creates many scenes, some of which last as long as a scene change, thus fragmenting the play to an extreme degree. Additionally, the major changes in tone contribute further to an overall episodic feel. Construction plays like an experiment that escaped from a theatrical lab still in rough form. (Though Kenneth Foy’s set is certainly a sturdy thing of beauty.)
Construction’s varying relationships require some quick mental mathematics on the behalf of the audience, but I’m not sure that they are rewarded for their hard work in the end. Hruska’s play gives plenty of answers, but it has yet to define what the questions are.