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Our House

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Christopher Evan Welch and Morena Baccarin
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Had Theresa Rebeck's new play Our House, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, instead premiered 11 or 12 years ago, "sensation" could have been scribbled all over it. Its story about the unpredictable, and occasionally violent, collision of news, reality TV, and the effects of both on American society might have once served as a sobering reminder not to confuse what is, what isn't, and what we want to be, especially in front of millions of people. But now that that battle has been all but lost, Michael Mayer's sparkling production of the play only makes its simple troubles and even more elementary story all the quainter.

It's all based - and apparently not loosely - on CBS anchorwoman Julie Chen's relationship with, and 2004 marriage to, that network's president, Les Moonves. Gorgeous young reporter captivates media mogul, who pushes her to the top of the news profession and then proceeds to remake the entire schedule in her image, including letting her host a fledgling reality show about a bunch of incompatible people living on a ridiculously overappointed estate.

The names have changed a bit, of course. The reporter is Jennifer Ramirez (played by Firefly star Morena Baccarin), her executive squeeze is Wes (Christopher Evan Welch), and the title of the show isn't Big Brother but, well, Our House. Everything else essentially tracks, if in a gently amplified way, with Wes's attempts to secure increasingly impressive positions for Jennifer in both the news and entertainment divisions eventually encompassing direct challenges to the FCC's regulations about charging for use of the airways.

Jeremy Strong
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Paths diverge a bit with respect to the side story of a quarrelsome quartet of housemates who drive each other nuts without benefit of around-the-clock video cameras. Merv (Jeremy Strong) is an unemployed couch potato who's three months behind in his rent, much to the consternation of his bookkeeper roommate Alice (Katie Kreisler), who appeals to fellow live-ins Grigsby and Vince (Mandy Siegfried and Haynes Thigpen) to kick Merv out of the house. But Merv has his own ideas (spawned from apparently the tactical genius of Richard Hatch), and his long-distance affection for Jennifer leads him to explore how much he can control what's newsworthy and what's not.

Rebeck is definitely operating in her sharper, closer-cut mode here, more Mauritius than The Water's Edge whip-cracking urbanity and pungent commentary punctuated with laughs and smartly exaggerated characters. What she's neglected is insight, settling instead for well-drawn archetypes that never emerge from their too-familiar stables. Wes is laughably over-the-top coarse in sating his urges for ratings, retribution, and sex. Jennifer's a savvy businesswoman whose desk just happens to be in front of a camera. And Merv is a clear representation of an audience who knows everything, yet is incapable of rational reasoning.

But it's a fair bet that everyone in the Playwrights Horizons audience will know that practically all networks' news and entertainment shows are now functionally indistinguishable. They'll also be aware that, even if Rebeck goes out of her way to avoid referring to Fox News, it exists, is revolutionizing the news landscape (for better or worse), and regularly triumphs in ratings battles. And most will undoubtedly understand that TV news, at least as it's existed for decades, is a dying form that even the smartest money invested in people like Brian Williams, Katie Couric, and Anderson Cooper has not been able to resuscitate.

So it doesn't matter much that Mayer's production is slick, sexy, and fast-moving, refocusing seamlessly across Derek McLane's bifurcated set to probe both the network's New York home and that of Merv and his buddies in St. Louis. Nor does it matter that the acting, with the exceptions of the performers playing Merv's roommates (who tend to oversell their very brief moments at the center of the action), is largely enticing: Baccarin is a vivacious presence, and kicks up some sexual and comic heat with Welch; Strong is a fine fit for his unmotivated slob; and Stephen Kunken suavely rounds out the cast as the cunningly hapless news division president Wes is too happy to steamroll.

What does matter is that Our House, despite its clarity and intelligence, is of and about a time that's past, though it behaves as if it's set in the present. When Big Brother and Survivor were just igniting the reality TV craze, when movies about live-video ubiquity like The Truman Show and EdTV seemed slightly more fantasy than documentary, and when more people cared who said what and when on the news, this all might have seemed like an important breaking story.

Now, however, the landscape of television and the ways in which we obtain information about each other, the country, and the world have so changed that Rebeck's play is more staticky than scintillating. Our House is in no way a dull or dumb two hours, but it's less likely to propel you to the edge of your seat than it is to inspire you to scramble for the remote and change the channel to something - anything - more relevant.

Our House
Through June 21
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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