A House with a shaky foundation

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Usually with a play, especially a new play, challenges in the underlying script end up compromising the eventual production. It's like the foundation of a house. If you're foundation is screwy, new wallpaper isn't going to help.

The foundation for Dan O'Brien's world premiere The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage is a little shaky.

The two-actor, 90-minute play is a family mystery of sorts. The playwright, embodied onstage by a character of the same name, is searching for answers about his family. He's estranged from almost everyone. His siblings won't talk to him. His parents won't talk to him. Heck, they didn't even come to his wedding. Or did they?

Dan's questions aren't just about the present. Apparently there are dark secrets in the past. Family mythology, lawsuits about inheritance, mental health, alcohol, even suspicions of incest. It feels like there are some really ominous questions: What happened that makes everyone so cagey about the past? Who really is Dan's father?

The drive of the play is Dan searching out answers. Through short scenes where he interrogates different relatives about exactly what happened in the past a family narrative begins to unfold. It's tantalizing and, as a hook into the play, it's effective. We begin to care and wonder right along with Dan. What is wrong with his family?

The trouble is the play doesn't ultimately honor that curiosity. We invest in Dan's search. We want the answers and then ... we don't get them. It feels like a bait and switch. Just at the moment all these questions are coming to a head Dan escapes, or gives up, or simply finds himself on a hill in Ireland. And then, blackout, end of play, thanks for coming.

The faults in this foundation should be enough to sink the production but thanks to the two actors who bring it to life - it's an engaging, if ultimately, unsatisfying journey.

The reason to go to see The House in Scarsdale is to watch the actor, Tim Cummings, bring everyone who isn't Dan to life. There's something wonderfully odd about all his portrayals. He manages to capture a profound physicality for each of the different characters. Something that reveals their essence without descending into mimicry or caricature. The simple flip of a wife's angry hair, or the way his fingers massage an imaginary earring of an aunt, or the pot-bellied stoop of a troubled brother - subtle, unmistakable details that bring that character to life and also magically keep them at a distance because they're incomplete. Not incomplete through a lack of craft or observation, but incomplete like a memory.

In a lesser actor's hands this is the kind of performance that would upstage the play itself and be talked about as a tour-de-force. Mr. Cummings is smarter than that. He keeps everything a little distant and doesn't do all of the work for us in the audience.

Make the trip out to The House in Scarsdale for the acting and forgive the questions that don’t get answered.

The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage plays at the Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena through June 4.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time 90 minutes without an intermission.

Photo courtesy of Theatre at Boston Court