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The House in Town
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Joan Marcus
Jessica Hecht & Mark Harelik
in The House in Town
Sam and Amy Hammer are a middle-aged couple with a sumptuous home on Chelsea's so-called "Millionaire's Row." He runs a successful department store; she's a lovely hostess and housewife. They've just rung in 1929. What could possibly bring the Hammers down?

It's not the impending stock-market crash, as you might suspect at the top of The House in Town, Richard Greenberg's grim, stately, quietly devastating new play. In its 90-plus minutes, it traces the Hammers' own private crash and great depression, which has less to do with economics than with the ravages of age, duplicity and compromise—the usual playwrights' grist, in other words. If there's a faint sense of the routine about the way Greenberg takes apart this glittering, pointedly childless couple, Doug Hughes' smartly shaped direction nevertheless gives the play's revelations a sharply studded rhythm.

And the cast is excellent, headed by Jessica Hecht and Mark Harelik as the attractive but hopeless central couple. Hecht in particular has been handed a showpiece role with a swooping, tragic arc, and she masters it rivetingly: Amy is a sensitive, smiling gamine with an unwise dependence on the kindness of the strangers she thinks of as her friends and family. Hecht, her hair piled on her head and her native softness augmented by a brittle edge, registers Amy's slow-blooming horror with wrenching force.

Story continues below

©2006 Joan Marcus
Mark Harelik, Jessica Hecht, Armand Schultz & Becky Ann Baker in The House in Town
Sam, meanwhile, is the sort of stern, hemmed-in businessman who keeps his suit and tie on till bedtime; he may privately pine for the "glorious swirl" of the city, as he tells a callow young clerk he's taken under his wing (Dan Bittner), but he's a sad, rigid figure prone to long, inscrutable stares into the fireplace. Harelik gives him a stiff-backed gait and an impenetrably lockjawed diction that makes him both formidable and, when push comes to shove, utterly helpless.

Amy's purported friend Jean (Becky Ann Baker) is a gossipy, cynical wiseacre in showy flapper clothes; as Baker plays her, with snappy relish, she's perhaps a touch too mean-spirited for us to believe that Amy would keep on confiding in her, but she does provide the valuable service of regular reality checks on her friend's dreamy delusions. Armand Schultz, as her brusque doctor husband, Con, seems similarly unbuttoned by contrast with the cautious Sam. And as the young clerk who becomes unwittingly tangled in the complications of the Hammers' marriage, Bittner locates the restless, uncomprehending urgency of a character who spends every scene onstage trying to wriggle his way to the exit.

During an uncharacteristically passionate speech to the young man, Sam refers to the "modern age" as a period marked by the "dragging inside of the life of the street," obliterating the distinction between private and public lives. Sam thinks he welcomes this trend, but the production's forbidding design elements let us know it won't be a smooth transition: John Lee Beatty's stark cutaway house set is surrounded by exposed girders; David Van Tieghem's sound design mixes burbling, dissonant chamber music with cold industrial heaves and scrapes; Brian MacDevitt's lighting strikes a balance between warm hearth and hellfire.

That may sound a bit heavyhanded, but it matches Greenberg's thematic ambitions. An expert mixer of light comedy with dark dramatic strains, here he reverses the recipe, edging gingerly into the fraught realm of Strindberg or Ibsen. His climax even explicitly references the painful feminist awakening of A Doll's House. If The House in Town doesn't quite reach those towering heights, Hughes and this expert cast nevertheless give this dark meditation the concentrated emotional punch of a wrecking ball.

The House in Town
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Doug Hughes
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 6/19/2006 4:47:00 PM


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