theater review

Theater Review: On Fertile Ground With The House That Will Not Stand

From The House That Will Not Stand, at NYTW. Photo: Joan Marcus

At the end of the first act of Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand, an angry mother stands center stage, a mounting storm whipping at the windows of her home as she rails against her mutinous daughters: “What’s this?” she cries, “They disobeyed me? Snuck out and betrayed their own mother? … They went and disobeyed ME! Well, heaven help ’em! ’CAUSE NOW I GOT TO RAISE HELL!” She pounds the floor with her cane, thunder splits the sky, a series of neon tubes hidden in the framing of Adam Rigg’s slick and spare early-19th-century set sear our retinas in a burst of lightning, and the whole thing crashes into darkness as the crescendo of “Explode” by the New Orleans bounce musician Big Freedia roars through the theater’s speakers. The act goes out with a literal bang, carrying us into intermission on a wave of pumped-up, excitingly anachronistic theatricality and good old-fashioned suspense. We’re psyched, both to experience the frisson of worlds and styles colliding and to see what will happen next.

It was in this climactic sequence that I first felt Lileana Blain-Cruz’s production fulfill the potential for exhilarating, self-aware melodrama in Gardley’s play, which is both a riff on Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and an exploration of a little-known period in American, and specifically African-American, history: the moment at which the young United States government acquired the Louisiana territory, changing the rules on the free people of color who lived there practically overnight and setting them and their descendants on a path of legal disenfranchisement that in many cases would lead straight back into slavery. Gardley’s weaving together two complex threads — a family drama with classical allusions and a reclamation of history — into a play whose titular house is both domestic and allegorical. The house of that angry mother is as divided against itself as the nation it belongs to, and both are headed for catastrophic civil strife and possible eventual collapse.

It’s an elegant narrative formation, and one that lends itself to heightened theatricality. The New Yorker has described Gardley as “the heir to Garcia Lorca, Pirandello, and Tennessee Williams,” and like the last of those writers, the playwright has a penchant for knitting together poetic flights with sharp, sassy social observation, not to mention a liking for intricate, novel-like marginalia: The opening stage direction of The House That Will Not Stand describes a dead body, laid out in state, as “stiff as bird shit” in a “pearly white suit … so pretty one could … float him in a parade” — though the corpse’s suit is “no match for [the room’s] walls, which are as white as God’s teeth.” Characters in The House That Will Not Stand break into long bouts of song or trancelike verse or exalted invocation. When they’re riled they say things like, “Your house is going to fall … You may be the wealthiest colored woman in New Orleans but you built this house on sand, lies, and dead bodies. Soon, it will loose its foundations and come crumbling down on you like a boot crushing a fat head cockroach. And then God willing, I will have the sweet pleasure of scraping you from the bottom of my sole.”

This kind of language — along with Gardley’s premise, about a formidable free Creole mother who’s keeping her three beautiful, thirsty daughters locked away from society — is juicy stuff. But Blain-Cruz’s production only intermittently taps into the play’s brassiness, its conscious defiance of naturalism, and this flickering in and out of focus isn’t simply a matter of directorial oversight: Rather, it seems to me to be a response to a tonal conflict inherent in Gardley’s material itself. Though this is a play in which the first act ends with the following stage direction —

She pounds her cane! The house shakes as if tossed by an earthquake! Paintings fall off the wall. Candle lights flicker! Then a moan! Boom! Black out!

— it’s also a play in which Gardley prescribes up front that his characters “are grand but not melodramatic.” Wait, but why? Both writer and director of The House That Will Not Stand seem caught between two impulses: one to drive full-throttle into the heady heights and depths of stylization — the kind of world where curses bring down storms and unsettled ghosts possess the bodies of the living — and another to preserve the dignity of the play’s characters by shying away from our contemporary pejorative reading of that word, “melodramatic.” It’s a conundrum that sometimes leaves The House That Will Not Stand, despite many a compelling moment, feeling a little stuck, and I often found myself wishing that Blain-Cruz had elected to embrace melodrama more wholeheartedly. The play’s characters are bright and big, painted in oils not watercolors, and their dignity, humanity, and humor would, I believe, not only withstand a more heightened theatrical landscape but in fact profit by it.

Gardley’s play is peopled by six women and reigned over with an iron cane by the uncompromising matriarch, Beatrice Albans (Lynda Gravátt, whose voice is full of volcanic rock and who moves with the steady implacability of an oncoming tank). Beatrice is a free woman of color living in New Orleans in the early 1800s, but “free” is a painfully relative term. Beatrice is no slave — in fact, she has one named Makeda (the quick-as-a-whippet, gloriously dynamic Harriett D. Foy) — but she is a placée: She’s the contracted, legally recognized mistress of a prosperous white man. She’s borne him three daughters and lives in a house that he’s provided for her, and that she expects to inherit on his death. She has social status and a certain kind of power, and she’s also living at a dangerous moment: With the purchase of New Orleans from France by the U.S., the rights of free people of color are in peril (many are boarding ships bound for Paris), and Beatrice’s gravest wish is to save her daughters from a life of bondage, be it the kind she herself has endured as a placée or an even worse fate.

As in Lorca’s tragedy, the play begins just after the death of the father figure, with the widow’s windows shut up and her daughters shut in. Beatrice has instituted a seven-month period of mourning for Lazare Albans — “the only white man she loved as much as Jesus” Makeda says sarcastically — and of course she’s begun it on the day of the annual masked ball, an event where young women of color, escorted and essentially auctioned off by their mothers, hope to be “placed” with a wealthy young white man. It’s a toxic Cinderella story, and at least two of the Albans sisters are desperate to star in it. Thus begins the crumbling — in classical tragedy mode over the next 24 hours — of the house of Beatrice Albans.

But The House That Will Not Stand isn’t fully a tragedy, because the play doesn’t belong entirely to Beatrice. Though its central plot circles around her family, as the story advances, Makeda begins to move into the spotlight. Names matter in Gardley’s play (Beatrice’s daughters — Agnés, Maude Lynn, and Odette — will all yield to nominative determinism), and it’s no accident that Makeda is named for an ancient Ethiopian queen who’s probably the same figure as the legendary Queen of Sheba. She’s the play’s teacher and bearer of history, a conjure woman whose access to her African roots is more alive and empowering than that of any of the technically “free” women on stage. As Beatrice’s power disintegrates, Makeda’s star begins to rise. The play’s victory belongs to her, while its doom is Beatrice’s, a heavy judgment meted out for participating in and profiting from the very same system that has victimized her.

There are numerous narratives at work here, from the story of Beatrice’s attempts to save her house, position, and daughters; to the ill-fated adventures of the daughters themselves; to the plotting of Beatrice’s lifelong rival, Madame La Veuve (a claws-out Marie Thomas); to Makeda’s fight for freedom; to the dreamy interventions of Beatrice’s sister, Marie Josephine (Michelle Wilson), a fully gothic mad woman in the attic. It’s a lot to juggle, and Blain-Cruz’s production at times loses its engine in attempting to hop back and forth amongst all these strands and their various theatrical modes. Marie Josephine’s material is particularly tricky: She was declared mad and locked up in the attic by her sister after the death of an unsuitable lover — unsuitable because he wasn’t a rich white man but a black musician, “dark as shut-eye and beautiful as a midnight with no stars.” But is she truly crazy, or just gravely wronged, and if she is “crazy,” what does that really mean? She’s got clairvoyant tendencies, and she and Makeda even attempt a conjuration together in which the spirit of Lazare Albans comes back to speak to them, but Wilson seems uncertain of how far to push her character’s madness. She often sounds fully rational, or at least fully in control of her faculties, and that plus the fact that she knows how to pick locks with a hairpin beg the question of why she’s stayed put in her attic prison all these years. Again, Gardley and Blain-Cruz seem to be vacillating between a melodramatic choice (and I say that with no sense of disparagement) and a more naturalistic, perhaps seemingly more humanizing one. But Marie Josephine gets lost somewhere in between, while her true humanity — like that of a Greek prophetess — might have been more successfully revealed by diving deeper into supposed madness: For, in a situation like Marie’s, what is madness if not society’s definition of a ruptured spiritual state, a place in which our mind, broken open by trauma, can perhaps more fully touch the truths of worlds beyond our own?

The production’s sense of staying a bit too often on the stylistic fence is also furthered by its design. Gardley’s script calls for “all sound and music [to] come from live actors to emphasize the natural world,” and, for the most part, obediently following this dictum has left Justin Ellington, who’s credited for sound design and original music, in a bit of a bind. The play’s tone seems to call for soaring, colorful gestures, but the sound often takes a backseat when it could, perhaps with more flexibility from Gardley, do much to sweep the drama forward. It’s telling that its strongest moment by far is that thrilling burst of anachronism at intermission — which is where Yi Zhao’s lights, finally allowed to bust out the period-defying fluorescents, also do their most exciting work. And while it’s aesthetically pleasing in a minimal, West Elm–y kind of way, Rigg’s drawing-room set doesn’t necessarily do all it could to help Blain-Cruz make clear, bold jumps in the action. Walls are transparent and spaces interpenetrate, which means that when Gardley jumps from a scene in one room to a scene in another, the action of the “waiting” scene can feel uncomfortably suspended. Blain-Cruz sometimes opts for almost-naturalism in these moments of overlap — as when the girls, left in their room so we can listen to Beatrice and La Veuve on the other side of the “wall” — sit on their bed combing each other’s hair and trying not to distract too much attention. But sometimes, left without stage business in the half-light, the actors feel like they’re being asked to tread water for several minutes, stuck between committing to a fully stylized freeze and filling the time with some kind of believable background activity. Also unclear are the rules of entry to Beatrice’s house: When are characters allowed to step up onto the set’s main platform from the front, essentially passing through the fourth wall, and when must they go around the proscenium frame and use an actual side entrance? Sometimes, these crossings of the set’s front threshold carry deep meaning — as they should — and other times they seem haphazard.

These are the kinds of blips in the electric current of a play that you start to notice not because some striking choice has been made, but because it hasn’t quite. And it’s frustrating because The House That Will Not Stand is built on extraordinarily rich soil, in terms of both historical fact and fictional plot, both intricacy of language and depth of character. What ultimately carries the show are its performances, especially those of Gravátt, who’s truly a force to be reckoned with, and Foy, whose fierce intelligence and boundless energy — sometimes meticulously controlled and sometimes let rip — bring heat and focus to every scene she’s in. As Agnés, Maude Lynn, and Odette, respectively, Nedra McClyde, Juliana Canfield, and Joniece Abbott-Pratt also bring an abundance of vitality to the play. McClyde snaps and sizzles as the eldest sister, whose jealous, self-deluding pride presages her downfall; Canfield is a furrow-browed delight as the Jesus-loving tattletale Maude Lynn; and Abbott-Pratt goes on an equally pitiable and disturbing journey as the romantic baby sister whose sense of self barely has a chance to awaken before it’s marred by a latent streaks of cruelty, self-loathing, and recklessness. Blain-Cruz often achieves great individual moments of release with these actors, and I longed for an overarching theatricality that more fully tied these moments together: a production where the the powerful realness of Gardley’s characters — their wit, their cruelties, their vulnerabilities, their suffering — made fewer concessions to realism.

The House That Will Not Stand is at New York Theater Workshop through August 12.

Theater: On Fertile Ground, The House That Will Not Stand