Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Compass’s The House of Yes: A Fitting Farewell


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Courtesy Compass Theatre

Wendy MacLeod’s The House of Yes isn’t the greatest play — or the best production — Compass Theatre has given us, but as their farewell to the playing space at 3790 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest where they’ve been since their inception it’s a fitting piece that plays well to this plucky little theatre company’s strengths. It offers a provocative premise, incisive direction by Jay Mower, quite credible settings for a community theatre and, above all, finely honed acting by a more than capable ensemble cast. It’s also the sort of black comedy-drama Compass has always done well. Most of their best modern-dress productions have been of this sort of play, offering outrageous situations that at once amuse and shock, even though MacLeod is hardly a “name” author in the sense that David Mamet (whose classic scripts Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo gave Compass two of its most artistically and commercially successful productions) is.

The House of Yes, premiered in 1990 and made into a film in 1997 with Parker Posey, Tori Spelling and Geneviève Bujold, is actually set in 1983, in Washington. D.C. The principals — Mrs. Pascal (Lee Donnelly) and her three children, sons Marty (Jason Perkins) and Anthony (Bobby Schiefer) and daughter Jackie (Laura Massey), Marty’s fraternal twin — live in a fancy house next to one of the residences owned by the Kennedy family. The Kennedys take on a symbolic role as a locus of influence and power, a family able to keep their skeletons buried in a way the Pascals can’t — and Jackie has made her namesake, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a sort of lodestar of glamour and effortless beauty.

Jackie is also insane — she’s just been released from a “hospital” when the play opens, and it doesn’t take us long to figure out what kind of hospital — and as we watch her it’s like watching a train wreck. Neither the other characters nor the audience quite know in what direction the glare-ice of her mind is going to take her next — and Laura Massey enacts this part of the character by speaking in a deliberately babbling voice and moving her body and limbs in great arcs that physically dramatize her unpredictability, nervous energy and drive. The crisis of the play is precipitated when Marty arrives at the Pascal home for Thanksgiving dinner — and accompanying him is Lesly (Karenessa LeGear), his live-in girlfriend and fiancée from New York, the only non-Pascal in the dramatis personae and a down-to-earth proletarian (she works in a doughnut shop and Marty tells his family that “she smells like powdered sugar”) whose disorienting presence chez Pascal — at a time when the house is being menaced by a hurricane and the meal they were cooking falls victim to a power blackout that renders their electric stove inoperable — triggers a string of psychological and sexual crises.

MacLeod’s debt to Harold Pinter in general and The Homecoming in particular is almost too obvious — though in Pinter’s play it was a father, not a mother, at the center of the family whose prodigal son is re-entering their lives with a new girlfriend in tow — but she’s able to ring new changes on those old chimes. Her script is performed with loving care by director Mower and his cast. Jason Perkins gives us Marty as a man who at first seems to have escaped the orbit of Jackie’s craziness and made a normal life and relationship for himself — and he seems to be as perplexed as we are when Jackie goes after him with both barrels and tries to pull him back into her world. Bobby Schiefer is physically a bit hard to believe as Perkins’ brother, but he acts his part with a kind of befuddled naïveté and his deliberate stiffness and nerdy line readings express the gulf between him and his high-powered siblings.

Lee Donnelly’s matriarch was probably a cliché before she was born, but within the limits of the character she’s properly imperious as she sets herself squarely in the eye of this hurricane — the one going on inside, not outside, the Pascals’ home. Karenessa LeGear has just the right appearance for Lesly — interestingly, her bio in the program lists her mostly as a musical performer but she’s just fine in this non-singing role — and she does a good job projecting a sort of Everywoman who loses her own bearings amidst the Pascal craziness. The ending of the play is unexpectedly violent — at least if you don’t see the warning on the lobby wall that firearms are used in the piece — but it makes sense in terms of all we’ve seen before.

Compass’s physical production is generally good, though there are a few flaws. One wonders why, in an otherwise convincing room set — designed by Adam Lindsay, built and painted by George Bailey, and filled with ghastly “antique” furniture that seems credible as the sorts of pieces these demented rich folk would own — the artwork on the Pascals’ walls is represented by empty frames. Also, it’s a bit disappointing that we don’t see the famous outfit in which Jackie went to a costume party as the real “Jackie O,” complete with blood spatters on the jacket and macaroni bits glued to it to represent John Kennedy’s brains as they spattered after he was shot. (There is a Jackie O. jacket, but costume designer Lisa Burgess — whose work elsewhere is spot-on — spared it the accoutrements we heard about in the script.) Mitchell Simkovski’s lighting design and especially the uncredited sound design do a good job of suggesting the hurricane looming outside, carefully referenced by MacLeod as a metaphor for the one blowing within the Pascals’ walls (and a real-life hailstorm that hit early in the play on January 20 just added to the verisimilitude).

Dale Morris, founder and executive director of Compass Theatre, is looking for a new space and trying to find something affordable and easy to get to (two qualities that in the real estate market all too often seem to cancel each other out!). While it’s to be hoped that this marvelously ambitious little company finds a new home and continues to grace San Diego’s theatre scene with productions like this, The House of Yes is an appealing conclusion to their nine years in Hillcrest and a play everyone interested in this quirky sort of comedy-drama should see.

The House of Yes is playing at Compass Theatre, 3790 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, every Thursday through Sunday through February 14. Performances are at 7:30 Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and other information, call Compass Theatre at (619) 688-9210 or visit on the Web.