Los Angeles Theater Review: A HOUSE NOT MEANT TO STAND (Fountain Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on March 3, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


You must run to the Fountain Theatre to see the delightfully quirky oddity, Tennessee William’s last play A House Not Meant to Stand. Fasten your seatbelts, slam down a mint julep, and keep all arms, legs and gaping mouths inside the McCorkle’s Southern Gothic living room at all times. Not only will you gain insight into the alcohol-soaked and pill-ravaged mind of one of the theater’s greatest writers toward the end of his days, but you will witness what an amazingly beautiful production can be created using a script that is seemingly incapable of being produced.

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There surely is a reason why it has taken 30 years before House was unveiled on the West Coast. It’s a mess – a beautiful, lyrical, haunting, funny, weird mess; in a way, it almost seems as if Williams was in a state of prescience about his imminent death, and this was his last attempt to exorcise the cacophony of demented demons so firmly ensconced in his psyche. The playwright seems less concerned with psychological drama and more invested in the decay of modern society and all its vulgarities, represented by (among other excesses) the dilapidated manse, face lifts, pill-popping and mass-consumerism. Whether you want to give in to the spectacle and laugh, or run screaming from the theater, you remain transfixed by the Gothic Horror of it all. (Williams himself called his play a “Southern gothic spook sonata.”)

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The familiar southern train-wreck-of-a-family is on board: the matriarch being Bella McCorkle (Sandy Martin), whose once-great relations made a fortune in moonshining. Returning home to her decaying mansion, it is clear that she’s losing her mind, not just from dementia, but from the stress caused by her gay son’s recent funeral. Her arthritic and overbearing husband Cornelius (Alan Blumenfeld) desires nothing more than the location of Bella’s stashed family money before he has her institutionalized: this is no mere threat as he has already incarcerated their daughter in a mental ward. While his folks are at his brother’s funeral, the McCorkle’s prodigal third child Charlie (Daniel Billet) appears with his very pregnant fiancée Stacey (Virginia Newcomb), who just happens to babble in fervently religious tongues.

House Not Meant to Stand-5smAdd some ghosts, wacky neighbors, thunderstorms, police and a kindly doctor who attends to Bella, and we end up with something more resembling a carnival funhouse ride more than a play. Characters break the fourth wall and speak to us directly as if they were barkers at a side-show, firmly placing us inside the McCorkle’s house. Even the peeling, muddy-pink wallpaper wraps around the theatre as if we were mummified alongside the freaks on display.

One of the neighbors, a wide-eyed, lunatic, cougar named Jessie Sykes (a brave Lisa Richards), parades about in a short negligee adding no more to the plot except the manifestation of Williams’ intense discomfort with crazy Southern women (his sister had a frontal lobotomy and his mother was a borderline hysteric); it was impossible to tell if Miss Richards is a brilliant actress portraying a most eccentric and unlikable character, or if she couldn’t act at all.

There is no doubt as to Miss Martin’s magnificent performance as Bella, which is no less breathtaking than Judith Ivey’s haunting Amanda in the Taper production of A Glass Menagerie. Martin’s faded Southern Belle is so distracted, so haunted, and so wearied that we can palpably sense her soul leaving the body. Her portrayal is a magnum opus of the theatre. Overall, the women seem to be more in synch with house-virginia-newcomb-crop-300x286their characters than the men, making this reviewer wonder whether Williams, an angst-ridden gay man, related more to his troubled female characters than to his alcoholic male characters.

Director Simon Levy allows his six brilliant designers to have a field day: Jeff McLaughlin’s set design utilizes colors that mimic the Badlands during a storm, all bentonite clay and devilish greens, with old, faded portraits that line the walls like spectators. The water that drips into the fetid living room is stunningly lit by Ken Booth’s patrol car lights and lightning; his fascinating choice of colors mimic the strand of old Christmas bulbs that frame a doorway in the decrepit home. Naila Aladdin-Sanders’ costumes are so perfectly natty and used that we can almost smell the moldy stench of a peat bog. Add Peter Bayne’s eerie sound, Misty Carlisle’s putrefied props, and Keith Skretch’s spectral projections and we have one of the greatest sets ever seen in small theater.

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Certainly, there are brilliant moments that burst with poetic dialogue – but, unlike Williams’ earlier plays, House lacks smoothness, elegance, and authority. His fans (and Williams academics) should be tickled pink by all of the Southern Decadence, as House teems with recognizable themes that are ubiquitous in Williams’ oeuvre, such as a sister who is institutionalized, the alcoholic and abusive father, and the death of a young homosexual. (House was written in 1980 as a one-act play, and then expanded to a two-acter in 1982, just after the discovery of HIV. Was the offstage death a suicide (á la A Streetcar Named Desire) or had Williams already heard of a strange disease that killed gay men?)

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In the end, it is clear that, had it been written by an unknown playwright, A House Not Meant to Stand would not have been produced – too much of it is meandering and unclear. All of the stunning imagery, chewy dialogue, and magnificent performances are like the prescription medicines that the characters literally toss about the stage; each is effective in and of itself but, combined improperly, they can kill the host which they were intended to help. Thanks to Levy’s luminous staging, however, this House is a Haunted Mansion I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

photos by Ed Krieger

A House Not Meant to Stand
Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on April 17, 2011 EXTENDED to May 22, 2011
for tickets, call 323.663.1525 or visit Fountain Theatre

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