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Playwright-poet Marcus Gardley has been described by The New Yorker as “the heir to Garcia Lorca, Pirandello and Tennessee Williams.” Gardley riffs on the first (while tipping his hat to the others) with his new play The House That Will Not Stand, inspired by Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and reset in early 19th century New Orleans. This poetical drama infused with supernatural elements boasts rich language and colorful imagination. But its narrative clunkiness is very much on display in the off-Broadway premiere of the work previously seen in Berkeley, California; New Haven, Connecticut; London; and Chicago.
The show’s program provides the historical context necessary to fully understand the action. It describes the practice known as placage, in which white men and free women of color were allowed to establish civil unions in what was then a French colony. After Louisiana was sold to the U.S. in 1803, black women found themselves increasingly marginalized as their legal rights were diminished.
Such is the misfortune befalling Beatrice Albans (Lynda Gravatt), the common-law wife of a recently deceased French aristocrat whose body lies in repose, surrounded by flowers, in the parlor of their opulent home in the city’s French Quarter. Beatrice had been counting on inheriting his considerable wealth so that she and their three mixed-race teenage daughters, referred to as “quadroons,” could all move to Paris. But she learns that all of his money and property will instead be left to her late husband’s legal wife, even though they had no children together.
Meanwhile, Beatrice’s three daughters (Nedra McClyde, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Juliana Canfield) desperately desire to attend a masked ball in order to meet prospective white mates, which their bitter mother now vehemently forbids. Also figuring in the proceedings are Marie Josephine (Michelle Wilson), Beatrice’s possibly mad, possibly clairvoyant sister, consigned to living in the attic; La Veuve (Marie Thomas), another free woman of color who has a long-standing rivalry with Beatrice; and Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), a household slave who had been promised her freedom by Beatrice and will now become the property of the dead man’s legal widow.
The drama possesses many arresting lyrical elements, but Gardley (whose acclaimed plays include X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation along with television credits such as Showtime’s The Chi) never makes them cohere. Further, the Creole-stuffed dialogue features many jarring anachronisms, like one character complaining that the corpse “needed to cop one last feel.” The diffuse storyline is frequently confusing and thematically overstuffed, with strained attempts at magic realism. And the evening’s tone shifts uneasily from floridly melodramatic to a near sitcom-style level of broad humor.
However, there’s no faulting the production, elegantly staged by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Pipeline). Adam Rigg’s lavish set and Montana Levi Blanco’s gorgeous costumes (most of them appropriately black but some strikingly colorful) provide vivid period atmosphere, while Yi Zhao’s lighting and Justin Ellington’s music and sound design effectively convey the story’s voodoo and ghost-laden elements. The all-female ensemble is terrific, with the standouts being Gravatt’s fierce matriarch and Foy’s heartbreaking Makeda.
The end result proves frustrating; the work’s thoughtful and provocative aspects are undercut by its stiltedly artificial ones. The House That Will Not Stand has literary ambition to spare, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the playwright has bitten off more than the audience can comfortably digest.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop, New York
Cast: Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Juliana Canfield, Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravatt, Nedra McClyde, Marie Thomas, Michelle Wilson
Playwright: Marcus Gardley
Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set designer: Adam Rigg
Costume designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting designer: Yi Zhao
Music and sound designer: Justin Ellington
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop
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