Dead House - Boston Playwrights' Theatre
Dead House – Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
Dead House is presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Written by Beirut Balutis. Directed by Adam kassim. Scenic Design by Steven Doucette. Lighting Design by Hannah Solomon. Sound Design by J Jumbelic. Costume Design by Ruth King. Fight Choreography by Jessica Scout Malone.
***Author’s note: Due to the holiday weekend, I was unable to attend the press performance of Dead House and instead saw one of the previews. Therefore, please know that the show may have changed between that performance and the official opening night. The following is based on the performance that I saw
As we grow up, we absorb so much information via osmosis about what high school is like. I’m inclined to call bullshit on a lot of it. Pop culture feeds us stories about the prevalence of social groups and the strict hierarchies that they exist in, however at the time of my own high school experience, I never found much of that information particularly useful or accurate. Yes, absolutely, everyone had their own circle of friends, but the cliques people belonged to were more guidelines than scripture and there were always individuals that broke through the stereotypes. Cheerleaders could be seen hanging out with the goths. The art students would date the athletes. The captain of the football team was also one best students in school. Involvement with the marching band was a point of pride, not shame. I never really experienced that “stick to your lane” mentality that we’re told to expect.
Dead House, the new play running at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre presents a much more cutthroat view of the adolescent experience. Before I compare it too much to my own high school years, I guess I should admit that I grew up in a busy suburb a stone’s throw away from a major city. That’s not exactly what we’re dealing with here. The play by Beirut Balutis offers a look at a group of teens living deep in rural Pennsylvania where the cheerleaders and jocks rule with an iron fist and outsiders are treated with suspicion. It’s a set-up that we’ve seen before, but Balutis tries to offer his own spin on the situation by heightening the menacing undercurrent between his teenage characters. This is Mean Girls by way of a Roman Polanski paranoia thriller. Secrets are waiting to be revealed and the dead make their presence felt.
The play opens with a bang (or more accurately, a crash) when the local football hero, Whitney, dies in a car accident. The small town that he lived in is still reeling from the loss when another teenage boy named Merle (Thomas Mitsock), moves to the area. Merle arrives alone, giving a vague story about how his parents will be joining him in a few months. He claims to have been friends with Whitney when they were younger and in an attempt to keep the memory of her son alive, Whitney’s mother Leah (Christine Hamel) lets Merle move in with her. At school, Merle catches the attention of Whitney’s circle of friends from the cheerleading squad, Barbie, June and Prairie (Isabella Lampson, Liana Giangiullo and Amanda Figueroa) and football team, Levi and Max (Christopher Reilly and Trey Shields). When Merle joins the football team, he seems to be sliding into the hole Whitney left behind in the community. Some in the group are delighted, but others want to know just this kid is and what’s he after.
Despite some good elements present in Boston Playwright’s production (and there are some good points here), I have to say that Dead House left me cold. The Whitney character dies offstage before the start of the play and in spirit seems to be a descendent of Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer. We’re clearly meant to speculate about the secrets he had and wonder just who was Whitney Gillespie? Similarly, everything about Merle seems built to arouse our suspicions. His past and motivations are all kept secret until the play’s final moments so the character is fairly inert throughout the show. This pretense essentially sets up two voids at the center of the play. The audience can’t latch onto Whitney or Merle because we never feel like we’re on solid ground with them. So by default, we have to build our connection to the other teenagers in the group.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Especially if the play is meant to be an exploration of the psyche of teens living in rural towns. Director Adam Kassim’s staging seems to be jumping off this idea and highlights a kind of pack mentality between the characters. There’s a bond between them, present in their movements. There’s an energy to it. They seem the most alive when they’re in acting unison, leading a cheer or executing a football play. And designer Steven Doucette gives us a gorgeous set that keeps the life-altering car crash ever present in our minds the way it is for the characters. The moment of impact is shown in suspension with the windshield shards hanging in the air like deadly snowflakes.
My trouble is that I’m not completely convinced that Balutis wants us to empathize with these characters. The play is littered with references to the horror genre. In one scene, the teens watch a slasher flick. In another, Leah recounts a ghost/folk tale. A scene transition uses music that brings to mind the iconic theme from Psycho. The title of the play, in part, references an abandoned house in the town. I don’t think any of this is accidental, I think we’re meant to view the piece as a kind of horror play (the title Dead House also being something of a clue). So who then are we supposed to be afraid of? Ultimately, it’s not Merle. In the final scene, (which, as much as I may want to, I can’t talk about it without giving away massive spoilers), he’s set up as an object of pity. It’s the behavior of his peers, which has veered into a The Wicker Man-style ritual, we’re meant to recoil from.
It’s a shame because I think that the cast collectively does a great job at finding their own empathy for their characters and pulling out their various shades. The play works best in the scenes that hint at the characters’ larger stories. It’s at the end, when everyone’s motivations come out that the logic of the play begins to fall apart. It’s hard to believe that Merle has a plan when he doesn’t take much of an active role in the play. In the summary a few paragraphs above, I originally wrote that “Merle integrates himself into the group” but I had to delete it because that’s not really what happens. It’s the group that seeks him out and pulls him into their inner circle. He just happens to have been there. There’s a lot of talk about how suspicious Merle is and how the teens don’t trust him, but that doesn’t appear to stop anyone from spilling their guts to him the first chance they get.
For Boston Playwrights’ last show, Laughs in Spanish, I actually had similar questions about the logic of characters. Certain elements didn’t quite seem to add up. But that show was going for a zippier, comedic tone which I thought allowed the audience to ignore those issues. Since here we’re going for something a bit closer to the real world (heightened, but essentially reality-based), the plot holes only breed more questions. For instance, the play seems to take place over the course of a few months, so just how is Merle able to enroll in a new school district and sign up for a varsity sport team all without the involvement of a parent? And I get that Leah is trying to fill an emotional need by letting Merle stay with her, but would she really not speak with a parent before letting a strange child stay with her for that long?
Taking all of this together, it prevents Dead House from feeling like an entirely satisfying experience. In the final scene when we’re given certain insights (which again, I frustratingly can’t talk about), we’re not marveling at how it all comes together, we’re wondering how the pieces fit.
Dead House is presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre April 18-28, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.bostonplaywrights.org 184.108.40.206.