Adult Culpability and Childhood Innocence

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

Playwright Gregory Moss' House of Gold begins with a challenge. The setting: a suburban Colorado kitchen. A husband sits at the breakfast table while his wife serves him sausage and eggs. And then these lines:


[WOMAN]...yes dear?

[MAN]...what's in this sausage?

[WOMAN]...JonBenet Ramsey.

[MAN]...Oh.'s good.

How's that for an opening? How do you play that? For shock value? Dryly comic? Tragic realism?

gold.jpgHouse of Gold revolves around the unsolved disappearance and death of JonBenet Ramsey, the six-year-old beauty queen. The characters? An image-obsessed aging mother, an overly doting and inappropriately sexual father, an earnest hero detective, a suitably sinister child abductor, and JonBenet herself -- played here by a grown woman with pigtails. JonBenet's story is balanced with an oddly moving sub-plot of Jasper, a bullied, overweight white kid who mysteriously thinks he's black and lip syncs to Richard Pryor.

Playwright Moss seems to be looking for a darkly comic but painfully honest examination of what we, as adults, are doing to children. His take seems to be 'hey, these kiddie beauty pageants are super creepy. The parents must be a little twisted and the whole thing feels a bit like child pornography.' Agreed.

It'd be nice to say that the play's obsession with JonBenet and bullying was an outdated idea but sadly a glance at the headlines tells you it's as topical as ever. I just wish this production dug a little deeper beneath the sensational surface.

Instead, we get a series of scenes that could easily be monologues as each character reveals their prurient obsession with JonBenet. While it's shocking, it's shocking in a tabloid headline kind of way, and falls short of biting satire or social commentary.

While the subject matter might be thin, director Gates McFadden has padded the piece with enough staging ideas, styles, and video screens for a season of plays. There's the opening animation, the rolling platforms, the scene in the next room, et cetera, et cetera. Taken individually, they're inventive and great. But by the time the full-size electric car drives into the space, you begin to wonder if they're helping to focus the play or simply serving to distract us.

The saving graces of House of Gold are the brave performances given by Jacqueline Wright as JonBenet and Alex Davis as the bullied Jasper. In their most poignant scene we see a 6 year-old girl, who's been turned into a sex symbol, and a 13 year-old white boy, who talks like a black rapper. Trapped inside of these cultural stereotypes they struggle to be kids. He gives her a Snickers bar. She tells him to close his eyes while she sticks her finger in his mouth. "That? was a 'Love Letter'" she says naively. The play distills the sweet innocence of childhood and the cruel dark side of the adult world into a single gesture. It's a moment that is truly shocking.

House of Gold plays at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Atwater Village through December 4.

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

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

Jacqueline Wright and Graham Sibley in Gregory Moss' House of Gold. Photo by Maia Rosenfeld