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Strange Love

The House of Yes is an odd production of an odd play

The timing of Country Playhouse's production of Wendy MacLeod's The House of Yes was strange indeed. The play, about a set of grown-up twins who enjoy acting out the assassination of John Kennedy, opened on the weekend of Ted Kennedy's death. This was, of course, completely unintentional; still, it was hard not to be distracted by sad events going on in the real world as MacLeod's story unfolded on stage.

It was odd timing for an odd narrative. Intended to be a bitingly funny commentary on what happens to a family and a country without leadership, the story gives us a long night's journey into the lives of the Pascal family, a wealthy group of kooks who live in suburban Virginia, around the corner from the old Kennedy clan. Mother is like June Cleaver after a bucket of martinis (Ananka Kohnitz), dressed in full skirts and heels and manipulating her children within an inch of their lives. Her daughter (Jessica Knapp), who goes by the name Jackie-O, keeps everybody on their toes. She just got out of the mental hospital and is capable of very dangerous acts, or so it seems. Jackie-O has two brothers. Marty (Nate Suurmeyer), her twin, appears as normal as apple pie — until his sister comes around. Then there's Anthony (Caleb George), the youngest of this bunch of infantile grownups. Unable to catch a break, he gets freakishly attached to all the wrong people. There is no dad. It seems he left the day Kennedy got his brains blown out in a convertible. Pay attention: The brains getting blown out turns out to be very important to this bunch.

Into this tribe of the weird comes the very blond, very naive Lesly (Kate Nelson), the seemingly sweet fiancée Marty brings home one stormy Thanksgiving night. Mom is horrified. Jackie-O's fragile mental condition makes her strangely dependent on her twin, and she's not going to like it much when she finds out he's gone and gotten himself another girl, much less that he's planning a wedding. But with her chin up and her game on, Lesly is clearly ready to fight the good fight for her man. No matter that she gets a bit distracted by his younger brother.

Jackie-O (Jessica Knapp, front) just got out of the mental hospital.
Jackie-O (Jessica Knapp, front) just got out of the mental hospital.

We learn just how close the twins are late in the night, when they start their game. "You be him, and I'll be her," says Jackie-O to Marty, as they lounge on the couch. Lesly is nowhere to be found. Alone downstairs, the twins act out Kennedy's assassination, and something about Jackie-O crawling over her brother, trying to retrieve the brain matter they imagine is splattered behind him, excites the two of them and, well, they end up doing things no brother and sister ever should. Meanwhile, Lesly's upstairs with Anthony, also doing things she shouldn't.

In this production, the story is presented with a sort of droll irony. But the story itself is so strange, to tell it from this cast's emotional distance is to rob it of its potential volatility. Directed by Julie Thornley with a cool head and an even cooler heart, the play ignites none of the fire that needs to be here. Each of the actors seems to be trapped in his or her own world — they don't really connect with each other. Kohnitz makes a beautifully weird mom, somewhere along the lines of Morticia from the Addams family. She makes muted remarks intended to wound, but mostly, she is just difficult to understand, and the children seem to neither fear her, loathe her or love her. She's just there, floating from scene to scene. Knapp's Jackie-O is so wildly wide-eyed and calculating in her conversations with her brothers and with Lesly, that her insanity seems put on rather than genuine, making it impossible to feel any sympathy for her. George's Anthony is the most real of the bunch, and he makes a valiant attempt to connect with Lesly, who has been made so ditzy by Nelson that it comes as a complete surprise when she takes a stand and tries to change the outcome of things. Marty is MacLeod's least fleshed out role, and Suurmeyer isn't able to do much here. And since there is no chemistry between Marty and his sister, or between Marty and Lesly, it's hard to understand what all the fuss is about.

These problems seem more systemic than individual. Thornley's direction hasn't really found much of a center. Even though the show moves quickly, once we get to the end, it's hard to know what all the weirdness was for.

 
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