Playwright Theresa Rebeck draws on her vast experience in television—she was a writer/producer on NYPD Blue and Law & Order: Criminal Intent—for her fierce, cautionary satire of television and the distortion it wreaks on American life. Words like “real,” “reality,” “true,” and “fact” spew out of Michael Mayer’s viscerally uncomfortable production like chunks of rock from a volcano, but ultimately Rebeck’s passion is stronger than her dramaturgy. Rebeck intercuts two stories: In the first, the head of a network, Wes (Christopher Evan Welch, masterfully employing his gift for playing distasteful characters), is obsessed about numbers and advertising. He’s also having an affair with svelte, ambitious newscaster Jennifer Ramirez (Morena Baccarin) and is determined to advance her career. More than that, he’s wildly paranoid and pretentious. In a funny early scene he demonstrates to Jennifer what he knows about examining wine as he wafts the odor to his nostrils with his hand: “What is that, pear, some floral, maybe some crushed stone?” One moment he’s lauding Edward R. Murrow—“a great personal hero”—and the next he’s dropping f-bombs on his idol.
Wes assigns Jennifer to host the network’s new reality show, Our House, while she continues as news anchor. His decision appalls his assistant and liaison to the news division, Stu (a fine, intense Stephen Kunken). Wes wants to have Jennifer report on who gets kicked off the reality show. “The news division doesn’t think that what happens on reality television is news,” warns Stu. “It’s reality,” responds Wes. “Why shouldn’t it be news?”
Meanwhile, in a house in St. Louis, a quartet of people share a house. Grigsby (Mandy Siegfried) is a medical intern, Alice (Katie Kreisler) works as a legal secretary, and Vince ( Haynes Thigpen) is a computer troubleshooter. The fourth is Merv (Jeremy Strong), a layabout who has no job, mooches off the others, doesn’t do housework, and is behind on rent. But it’s his addiction to television that particularly irritates Alice, who has lived in a section of Vermont that had no television reception. “It was like freedom … because there was no television,” she tells Merv, who dismisses every criticism she has.
Although the depredations of television have been dramatic fodder for a long time (the Oscar-winning Network, after all, came out in 1976), Our House resonates with Rebeck’s passion on the subject, which lately encompasses reality TV. It’s unfortunate, though, that her characters aren’t terribly sympathetic, and they seem to exist in a vacuum. Wes has impulsive sex with Jennifer in his office, for instance, although Derek McLane’s all-gray set has clouded glass partitions that aren’t so opaque that a secretary couldn’t discern what was happening. Yet there isn’t a sense that anyone else is around. Wes, too, seems to know what the chat rooms say about Jennifer but doesn’t know that people pay for the Internet. Whether Rebeck’s reading of the way executives think, as embodied by Wes, is accurate or exaggerated, Wes’s behavior doesn’t register as authentic.
But Rebeck’s warning that TV is creating a schizophrenic society and that reality is blurring because of it doesn’t let viewers off the hook either. Strong creates a magnificent, if one-note, character in the sociopathic Merv. As he glibly avoids doing anything useful or respecting others’ property, you’ll probably loathe him—but, like the TV shows he’s addicted to, you can’t look away. Is his problem that his housemates are too busy with their lives to engage in conversation with? Is the art of conversation dead in “our house,” i.e., America? Decent people like Grigsby and Vince are manipulated in the house meeting, and one senses they’ve been too busy with their lives to notice the danger in their midst or discuss the problems until they reach a tipping point. Only Alice, shaped by the lack of TV in her recent life, is alarmed by the fraying social fabric.
Act I ends with an act of violence and a hostage situation in the house, and Jennifer is assigned to cover it, though even Wes recognizes that “this isn’t television, this is real.” But Rebeck’s satire becomes too strained thereafter and doesn’t feel real either. The police allow Jennifer access to the house to interview Merv, and even after the situation ends, Wes is permitted a private interview with Merv. There are no cops, no SWAT teams, no hostage negotiators to have a say—the world outside doesn’t really exist, it seems. Even a dark, pact-with-the-devil ending doesn’t achieve credibility, and that’s unfortunate, because Rebeck clearly feels the stakes are high. As Alice says, “There is no liberty here, not to mention intelligence. This is the opposite of the American dream!”