Ambassadors Theatre, London – until 4 September 2022
For the second time in successive weeks an American family drama opens in the West End and while Jitney may be a less obvious group of characters, the premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s new play Mad House focuses on a more traditional dynamic. US theatre is filled with dysfunctional family dramas and the relationships between siblings, parents and wider groups of relatives that tend to motor them. A frequent theme used by writers as diverse as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and more recently Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins and Tracy Letts, unlike their television and film counterparts, stage families are rarely happy groups and Rebeck finds a sometimes winning black humour in the combination of cantankerous relations and end of life care.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate adopted a similar structure as a group of frustrated and estranged siblings return to the house they grew up in after their remaining parent died, looking for the building itself to yield secrets about its occupants. Rebeck – who notably also wrote Smash currently in development as a stage musical – also utilises the varied dramatic potential of the reunion but carefully spreads entrances out across the show to alter the dynamic as new arrivals create tonal shifts and generate opportunities to broaden conversational and behavioural tropes as the story unfolds.
Family drama may be set in the present but is almost always a vehicle primarily to examine the past, the individual lives and the experiences of a group of people who know each other intimately but whose lives have often developed quite differently and with each member of the family having differing degrees of investment in the original parental relationship or home. Tracing that back to their experiences in this house – usually through childhood resentments or traumatic experiences – exposes the uneven treatment they at least felt they received from their parents and becomes the core of why these people are who they are now and potentially what they will be by the end of the show.
Mad House actually changes shape across the two hours of performance time, neatly dividing into a straightforwardly comedic first half in which long-suffering Michael is relieved to meet new hospice nurse Lillian and a more straightforwardly dramatic second in which the expected secrets, betrayals and lies are revealed. Staged around the repeated arrival of new characters to repoint the drama and reposition what the audience has been shown in a much larger family context, Rebeck begins with an establishment scene, creating the charged interaction between father Daniel whose life is ending due to terminal emphysema and his wearied son Michael who returned eleven months ago to care for his father in his final months of life.
As serious as that scenario may be on paper this is no sentimental story of palliative heroism or tearful declarations of late-blooming filial love. Rebeck instead builds a deep and vocal resentment between father and son, building on a lifetime of mutual dislike to create an emotionally heightened scenario as Mad House opens, one that plays on the antipathy of its central ‘odd couple’. The audience learns quickly that neither man behaves well, purposefully seeking to thwart and antagonise the other and as much as they despise their situation there is a secret pleasure in locking horns over the trivialities of soup quality and whether Daniel should be smoking, with neither backing down in the sharp exchanges of cutting dialogue that Rebeck’s characters speedily fire at each other.
Into this semi-battleground nurse Lillian becomes the first external caller, a stranger to the family who throughout the play refuses to be drawn into the game between Daniel and Michael, although a timely intervention in family business will have significant consequences later on. Rebeck uses this tool twice more with the arrival of son Ned in the middle of the first half who like an equivalent character in Appropriate brings a fish-out-of-water, city perspective to Daniel’s lifestyle, returning home with personal gain in mind. Pam’s entrance as the conclusion to the largely comedic part of the play alters the narrative once again, and, as a more serious-minded character, pushes the show in a slightly different direction, her presence deliberately sapping what little sense of fun the play had built.
Across several scenes that represent weeks of activity, Rebeck develops layers of outrageousness that escalate across the play, using a farce-like model to up the ante as events become increasingly out of control. Although the humour is rarely physical, the extreme nastiness and curmudgeonly nature of Daniel’s character is ignited by Michael’s experience in a mental health facility some years before which becomes a major reference point for his character and is used by others to control and attack him. As they snipe at each other, openly discussing the inevitable, Daniel seeks ways to escape his incapacitation and as the 70-year old becomes all but bedridden, Mad House questions Michael’s increasingly reckless behaviour, culminating in a slightly over-egged but nonetheless dramatically effective finale scene in Act One that arguably takes the comedy as far as it can go while set entirely in a kitchen.
Throughout this first part of the play, Rebeck has woven in the resentments and painful collective memories that underscore the later drama. The arrivals tool gives the writer different ways to use her characters as well as adding extra dimensions as they start to form alliances – often short lived of course – that move the plot along. In Act Two this comes to the fore as the serious consequences of the earlier part of the play come into focus and the true darkness of this family dynamic finally plays out. With siblings Michael, Ned and Pam now under one roof with slightly different agendas plus nurse Lillian taking sides at last, Rebeck puts different groups in cahoots with one another to fight over their family legacy and their different interpretations of the past.
Act Two has two long scenes set on the porch outside and it is here that the traditional airing of grievances occurs as all three of Daniel’s children take the opportunity to reflect on the life they have lived together, the timeline and responsibility for their mother’s death from cancer while Michael was in hospital and their schemes following the imminent death of their father. Ned and Pam are not well drawn enough for this to be an entirely successful conversation, both there largely as negative reflections of Michael who they attempt to trigger, nor do they possess any real subtly in the personalities that Rebeck has given them, but this is the meat of the show and the confrontation that everything before has been building to, a chance for the audience and the individuals to finally understand the truth before its consequences are felt in the final scene.
But what is the outcome that Mad House is looking for? It concludes quite decisively but also in a sudden way, our two central characters Daniel and Michael are given the ending they perhaps desire and the audience is left with certainty about the life of this family, even given a single moment of romanticism that slightly recasts the relationship between father and son. Yet, this finale is not truly satisfying. Perhaps the ‘bad’ characters are too simplistic in their demands and their tactics to feel truly bested, perhaps Michael has endured too much for so neat a conclusion, maybe the intensely talky revelations of the second half can’t match the more entertaining brutal comedy of the first Act. Perhaps this is really a character piece about two men who should have just had the floor for longer.
David Harbour gives a really big performance as Michael, one that fills the room and brings multi dimensions to what is a complex character. Michael is trapped in a kind of no man’s land between the difficult life he had before and whatever he wants to do next. Formerly holding a Wall Street job like his brother and working for a major oil company, Harbour shows how Michael’s breakdown took all of the fight out of him, returning to a half-life in the family home where memories and notions of failure have plagued him throughout his life. When we meet Michael, he’s worn out, barely dressed to leave the house and deeply frustrated as much with himself as with his father.
Across the play, Harbour explores Michael’s reawakening, a process that is not always attractive as he makes questionable decisions and rails loudly against the pressures and judgement of his family. He’s not always successful in controlling himself but Harbour’s Michael isn’t regressing as his sister asserts but slowly developing a strength that allows him to face himself for the first time. Added to that the acerbic style that Harbour brings to his comedy timing and this performance helps to lift the play.
So too does Bill Pullman’s Daniel, a world away from the surface decency and upstanding certainty of his Joe in the Old Vic’s All My Sons. Daniel may be another family man but this demands a very different kind of physical performance from Pullman, one that requires plenty of wheezing, coughing and fragility that the actor subtly draws. The boldness in Daniel doesn’t come from his condition, which is like a continued base note, but from his vivid personality, a man lost to time, a vile incarnation of his particular generation.
Much of that is played for laughs of course, though his sometimes shocking diatribes evoke more nervous laughter than confederacy with the audience. Daniel is not a man who understand the world as it is now or even cares to, much of what he says is unpleasant, bigoted and often circular, confounding his own arguments with more bile, but Pullman never holds back from any of it, allowing this man to be fully seen. That Pullman still elicits the tiniest moments of empathy is remarkable, to be able to contextualise Daniel as a sick old man with little left to live for is the gift of this performance and Mad House is really at its best when Harbour and Pullman are alone onstage.
Akiya Henry carves a niche for herself as nurse Lillian, a calming presence whose prioritisation of care seems to be the one thing always missing from this household, but Lillian holds her own and refuses to be cowed by either man while building a valuable rapport with both that becomes decisive. Stephen Wright and Sinead Matthews have less to work with as Ned and Pam, the fairly unscrupulous brother and sister who couldn’t care less about their father, but both actors elevate the material they’ve been given and demand their place in the action.
Staged on Frankie Bradshaw’s run down kitchen set that revolves to reveal an exterior porch, there is considerable attention to detail here from the yellow-tinged windows that speak to years of nicotine staining to the grubby-bottomed fridge and tired decor, there is no mistaking this house for any of the grand and cosy family abodes that we’re so used to seeing for American families. Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s direction is pretty pacy, controlling the necessary comings and goings well, managing the changes of pace particularly in the more introspective second half and the show rarely feels its length.
This production of Mad House really gets to grips with the multiple meanings of its title – the fury of its characters, its interest in the implications of mental health hospitalisation and the comedic frenzy it implies. Its slightly formulaic second half may not quite fit the pieces together but this unsentimental family drama, headed by two characterful performances from Harbour and Pullman, almost hits the mark.
Mad House is at the Ambassador’s Theatre until 4 September with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
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