May 31, 2008
Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company's "House, Divided" Does More Than Just Stand
Theater: InterAct Theatre Company
Show Title: House, Divided
Opened: May 28, 2008
Seen: May 28, 2008
Reviewer: Karin Suni
InterAct Theatre Company’s world premiere production of House, Divided does double duty by supporting one of their own while bringing new and politically-charged theatre to the local scene. Playwright Larry Loebell, Philadelphia native and one-time literary manager of InterAct, builds on grains of autobiography with academic and first-hand research enabled by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture ultimately creating the story of the family Goldstein. Within this family framework we are presented with a collection of pairings both tangible and cerebral (distanced brothers, sympathetic cousins, the US and Israel, secular and religious, duty and conscience, youth and age) that twine together in an intricate and beautiful way highlighting the complexity of these pairings while decrying black and white absolutes.
Taking place both in the past and present, the action revolves around estranged brothers Doug and Lou and their respective sons Paul and Oren. Doug and Paul, the US faction of the family, have a relationship that is more friendly than paternal. Lou and Oren, the Israeli faction, are the opposite. They both are highly focused on duty and responsibility in a strict and traditional manner until Oren runs aground on a dilemma that challenges the rules and mores he has been raised to follow. In an attempt to reconcile his warring parts, Oren travels to the US to visit his uncle and cousin. Lou, who has not seen his brother for well over 20 years, quickly follows suit in order to remind Oren of his obligations and the consequences of abandoning them. The unexpected reunion of the whole family opens old wounds and exposes new secrets, all of which must be dealt with if they are to ever move forward.
Normally I am wary of productions that have flashbacks or past history elements, but here the scenes between the younger versions of Lou and Doug are well-placed and purposeful. While they do provide useful backstory and insights into the adult characters, they could easily stand on their own, though it was refreshing to see an instance where the acting is such that the younger versions of characters are clearly visible in the elder versions. The most interesting aspect, though, is how the presentation of the scenes changes and evolves as the play goes on. At first there is a very clear distinction between past and present. The characters in one rarely share the stage with those in the other. However, much like the blurred edges of the set, which are reminiscent of smudged charcoal, as the action continues, the scenes set in the past begin to bleed into those in the present exhibiting unique and meaningful tableaus thanks to director Seth Rozin’s meticulous blocking.
The men that make up the cast work very well together, creating a microcosm of opposing and attracting forces. More importantly, for the most part, they all do an excellent job of showing these conflicts as opposed to letting the text stand alone, thereby preventing a situation wherein the play becomes preachy. David Howey (Lou) and Paul Meshejian (Doug) both inhabit their characters to such a degree that the idea of a false note is rather unfathomable. Dan Hodge, as Paul, has an easy-going, laid-back, open-minded demeanor that underscores the character’s attempt to inhabit the elusive middle ground. Davy Raphaely (Oren) gives a strong performance as a young man torn between duty and desire weighed down by decisions that have no good answers, though his inconsistent accent was a bit off-putting at times. The gentlemen playing the younger versions of the two brothers managed quite well fulfilling the difficult task set out for them as they had to be strong individuals in their own characters while making sure that they were in harmony with those playing the elder versions without being mimics or worse, parodies of them. Noah Herman, as Young Doug, took a few scenes to hit his stride, but once found, carried through consistently and passionately. Robert T. Daponte, as Young Lou, infused his performance with a quiet conviction that served as a compelling counterpoint to Herman’s fire.
The set is evocative of the theme with areas representative of Philadelphia and Israel clearly delineated yet apparently so close that a single step taken from each side would bridge the space. At the same time though it is both broken and blended showing that even across thousands of miles, years of distance and innumerable differences, things are very much the same. The lighting scheme as a whole was unobtrusive and complementary to the show. I only noticed changes on the occasions when the hue and brightness dimmed during the scenes between Young Doug and Young Lou. The light design used indicating time shift to the past created an intimacy that was all the harsher to feel broken upon the return to the brighter, whiter present, which was a subtle reminder of the now pervasive familial discord.
As someone raised Jewish (albeit Reform Judaism) who is no longer religious, it is possible that my enjoyment of the play was increased by my personal familiarity with many of the issues presented. However, to think that having this background is a necessity in order to enjoy the production is a mistake. Regardless of your personal history or views on the political and social issues, you can understand and appreciate the universally human emotions, connections, fears and desires that lie at the core of House, Divided.
The play runs through June 22nd.
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