Monday, April 3, 2017

"The House of Yes"

The House of Yes
Wendy MacLeod

Casey Robbins & Caitlin Evenson
Lightning flashes; winds howl; and the rains pound the multi-paned windows.  But the approaching hurricane’s fury cannot begin to compare to the maelstrom that is brewing in The House of Yes, Wendy MacLeod’s 1990 play that is a modern version of a Jacobean tragi-comedy.  Like its 400-year-old predecessors, The House of Yes is full of subjects taboo in nature and often kept locked away in closets or basements in most households – subjects like insanity, secret affairs, incest, and revenge.  But in Wendy MacLeod’s House in its latest reincarnation at Custom Made Theatre, the upper-class, Washington, D.C., suburban abode is also home to biting satire with its rooms brimming in dark, delicious comedy and peopled by a brilliant, quirky, and equally delicious cast.

Blowing into the Pascal household is son Marty from New York City, twin to Jackie-O, brother (or maybe half-brother, no one is sure) to Anthony, and son to Mrs. Pascal, whose assessment of her grown kids is, “I look at you people and wonder how you ever fit into my womb.”  Prodigal Marty has not come home alone; and his surprise of a fiancé named Lesley -- a Donut King waitress (“She smells like powdered sugar”) – sends the entire household into stormy flashes of subversive plots.  In the meantime, there is Thanksgiving dinner to prepare (“I am going to baste the turkey and hide the sharp objects”); games to play (anyone up for recreating the Kennedy assassination?); and new skills to learn about hosting (“We’ve never really had over a guest before”).  This is a family whose closeness may make it a little difficult for the clan’s potential newcomer to find her way, especially when Mrs. Pascal’s opening remarks to Lesley are, “I just know Jackie-O and Marty belong together ... Jackie was holding Marty’s penis when they came out of the womb.”

With a set-up like that, how can this Thanksgiving not be special and unforgettable?  After all, there are secrets galore to unhinge from the family’s Pandora Bo; there are plot twists that will soon twirl faster than an approaching tornado; and there is romance in the air, under the covers, and on the couch – but not the kind most often associated with family, holiday gatherings.  And why, oh why does Lesley not listen to Marty’s plea five minutes after their arrival?  “You’ve met them; they’ve met you ... Let’s go.”

Shelley Lynn Johnson & Juliana Lustenader
Heading this household (or not) is Mrs. Pascal, dressed for Thanksgiving dinner in her blue, designer dress with matching jewelry and usually with martini in hand.  Shelley Lynn Johnson is clearly having a hoot playing this wonderful role of a mother who takes little responsibility for her children’s present states (“People raise cattle; children just happen”) and who often has a quick ‘truth’ to impart that can hilariously put a halt to ‘normal’ family activities.  “Conversations only get you into trouble ... Take it from someone who knows,” she declares heading off in a huff to bed when it is suggested the family could sit around and visit awhile with each other.  Ms. Johnson is a fabulous mixture of the grand dame and the wicked queen.  She delivers her mostly short, declarative retorts with both an air of dismissal of all those around her and of a foreboding that her will will be done in the end.

Elliot Lieberman & Juliana Lustenader
Into this family where ties, loyalties, and affections are tangled in knots not very likely to be loosened comes Lesley.  Juliana Lustenader is a Lesley who is not-too-smart but soon smart-enough and who brings a sunny, optimistic innocence just asking to be chewed up and spit out for fun by this family engrossed in its insularity.  That is, by all but Anthony, the twins’ younger twenty-three-year old brother (conveniently the same age as Lesley) who immediately has eyes and designs on his brother’s to-be.  Elliot Lieberman time and again comes close to stealing the show with those same eyes that seem to grow to the size of half-dollar coins – two, huge whites encircling dark pupils that dart from side to side emitting vivid conversations as loud as the words Anthony himself might or might not be speaking at the time.  His puppy love for Lesley is that of a dog in heat with few boundaries and is one his mother is only happy to aid and abet from the shadows.

Casey Robbins is wonderfully Janus-faced as he portrays Marty.  There is the lovey-dovey betrothed to his oh-so-perfect Lesley who assures her (with a straight face and a slightly crooked smile) that the family members all really do adore her.  Then there is the twin brother who makes quick, devilish side-glances to his sister -- their two sets of eyes locked in a plan brewing for later, clearly remembering something from before.  Mr. Robbins’ Marty remembers how to play games that only he and his sister know the rules; and he is eerily, creepily, and dangerously good in his recall.

But no one can come close to Jackie O for being eerie, creepy, and yes, dangerous while at the same time being totally bizarre, fascinating, and hilarious.  Caitlin Evenson uses her slightly upturned and unmoving smile, her high cheeks, and her piercing eyes both to send chills down our necks and laughs into our bellies.  Jackie O is obsessed with assassinations and soap operas and is living her pill-filled life (“blue ... to match my eyes”) with both in mind.  Her recent return from a psychiatric hospital does not mean she may not burst any moment into an inflamed rage over the slightest surprise (Hint: Do not hide her hair brush or tell her there is no more ice). Ms. Evenson is uncanny in her bouts of madness and then instant returns to calm – all the time clearly plotting how to rid Marty of Lesley and keep him home forever for herself. 

This House of Yes is where family members have never learned to say no to each other no matter how outrageous the request.  Stuart Bousel delectably directs with both tongue-in-cheek and sinister-eye-ready-to-shock.  Scenes end and begin with surprises that draw both gasps and laughs – and often both at the same time.  Over-the-top is never allowed to be over-done. The pace of the ninety minutes has scattered minutes of family frenzy punctuated by searing seconds of freeze-framed glares and glimpses – both of which the director has ensured parallel the growing intensity of the outside storm.

Zoe Rosenfeld’s set design beautifully reflects the muted grays and ivories and the molded ceiling borders of upper-class distinction one might expect from a home around the corner from the Kennedy’s MacLean, Virginia estate in the mid 1980s.  The outside hurricane and its indoor effects become immediately and convincingly real through the expertise of Sophia Craven’s lighting design and Ryan Lee Short’s sound design.  Kathleen Qiu dresses the would-be aristocrats of suburbia in evening finery for Thanksgiving and brings Jackie O’s Dallas-based fantasies about November 22, 1963 to full life with effects full of farce and fun (and some intended shock). 

Acclaimed English film and stage director, Declan Donnelan, says, “Every so often it’s important to empty our prisons and see who we’ve got locked up there ... Even if it’s just the prisons of our imagination.”  Custom Made Theatre invites us all to look into our own hidden cells of secrets and sins as we both laugh and cringe while entering Wendy MacLeod’s The House of Yes.

Rating: 5 E

The House of Yes continues through April 29, 2017 at Custom Made Theatre Company at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits: Jay Yamada

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