Morena Baccarin, Katie Kreisler, Stephen Kunken, Mandy Siegfried, Jeremy Strong, Haynes Thigpen, Christopher Evan Welch
If reality television has become a tiringly overplayed topic in contemporary discourse, don’t blame this oversaturation on playwrights.
They’re not the ones who’ve set up cameras in countless reality show houses or marooned groups of people on islands in order to kickstart their survival instincts. Instead, playwrights like Theresa Rebeck, whose biting new play Our House is now playing at Playwrights Horizons, serve as observers. And Rebeck, in this instance, proves a particularly astute one.
From the get-go, we’re thrust into the sort of backstage media situation we’re used to imagining. Wes (Christopher Evan Welch) is nurturing – professionally, at least at first glance – the up-and-coming news reporter Jennifer Ramirez, whose numbers are absolutely through the roof.
In order to capitalize on her success, it becomes clear to Wes that the next pivotal move is to insert into the host spot on the network’s top-rated reality program, Our House. The complication, however, arises when Stu, the news division head, questions the ethics of having the morning news reporter inserting commentary on the network’s reality TV programming within the regular news reports (a situation most playgoers will be familiar with).
Meanwhile, thanks to Derek McLane’s quick-changing set, we’re introduced to a household of roommates whose home life isn’t much less chaotic than life in a reality show. Good-for-nothing loafer Merv begins to run into problems with high-strung Alice as she asserts that he’s behind in paying the rent. These two dueling subplots remain elusively separate for long enough to whet an audience’s appetite for intrigue, the two stories colliding later on in strange and interesting ways.
For sure, Rebeck’s play is not the tidiest or the most believable. After a viscerally shocking event caps the first act, the play juts out from its realistic confines in implausible and unsettling ways. But the rollercoaster ride the playwright has mapped out for her audience is nonetheless consistently engaging and entertaining, thanks in part to a top-notch cast.
As seedy TV exec, greasy-haired Christopher Evan Welch is spot-on, utterly believable as he spouts crazy one-liners like “Staying informed is optional,” “The news is not free,” and “Violence equals TV time.”
Matching him is Morena Baccarin, who perfectly fits the mold of perfect-looking TV personality as news hottie Jennifer Ramirez. Despite her looks, however, her character gets to strut herself in the play’s second act, showing her true mettle as real-life events begin to blur the line between television and reality.
As annoying as Jeremy Strong and Katie Kreisler as housemates Merv and Alice respectively can get, there’s a certain intent behind their performances, which serve to play up the utterly annoying aspects of reality TV that Merv himself despises as he allows hours of mindless programming to wash over him, seemingly without a second thought.
If Our House essentially amounts to little more than an entertainment, it’s a shocking, thought-provoking play at the very least. Rebeck sets up ethical quandaries for her characters that make for a healthy debate amongst audience members, many of which will be riled up by the events in this daringly flawed play. I was willing to forgive some knots in the second act’s winding plot because of the strength of the playwright’s voice.