Off-Bowery Theater

at Club Dreamerz

I once heard someone say to Eric Anderson about his play A Date With Elvis, “It’s nowhere near perfect.” The 27-year-old playwright responded, “Of course it isn’t. I’m young and I’m still learning. Who wants to peak too early?”

This is a candor as refreshing as it is rare. Instead of wasting time defending the supposed flawlessness of his work (as many young playwrights do, ad nauseam), Anderson apparently devotes his energies to developing his craft. His third play, Buddah Haus, isn’t perfect either, by any means, but if Anderson continues to progress at the rate he has from one play to the next, it won’t be long now.

The plot of Buddah Haus is simple enough: a 19-year-old architecture student named Warren Peece is attempting to build a house by sheer mental powers. He has already conjured a roof, which floats unsupported over his head, and on this warm Christmas Eve is concentrating–literally–on putting up the walls. His parents, Art and Bernice, are establishment architects with a vested interest in keeping the cost of housing high and exclusive. They attempt to dissuade him from his philanthropic mission, even to the extent of hiring Lucite, the top deprogrammer in the country, to unscramble the lad’s brains. When even this fails–“You don’t need a deprogrammer!” shouts Lucite in exasperation, “you need an exorcist!”–they employ the last weapon they have, with devastating results.

Buddah Haus offers many opportunities for satire. Warren’s parents, in order to protect their reputations, must remain incognito while visiting him, so they try to pass themselves off as two of his contemporaries–by wearing beads and headbands and uttering such hip expressions as “Pass that groovy jay my way, Ray.” Anderson has much fun with the aliases Lucite adopts in the line of duty–he’s a reporter for the Daily Grind and the senior partner of an architectural firm called Suburban, Design and Centre–along with its two associates, the gun-toting Ed Centre and the snobbish Denise Design (“Do I smell something fishy? It must be the Brie”). Along the way are some jibes at new-age mystics: “It’s a crystal–a key to the doors of perception and the windows of your mind. . . . I’ll put it back on the chandelier when I get home.” And there are the usual commentaries on world politics and fast-food restaurants. Buddah Haus even pokes fun at its own theatrical conventions. “This isn’t a stage, dear,” says Art. “It’s an empty lot in Wicker Park.” To which his wife replies, “That doesn’t make it any less hazardous.”

It is the mercurial language, however, that makes the script of Buddah Haus one of the most dazzling I’ve seen all year (along with Larry Shue’s The Foreigner). Puns and one-liners are here in abundance: “How about you, Pop?” “Call me Art.” “All right then, Pop Art.” But Anderson also plays with the very structure and progression of the dialogue, so that the puckish wit is not simply extraneous decoration but an integral part of the text and the information it communicates. For example, when one character declares that he has lied but now wants the truth, Warren answers, “The truth always lies.” “Where does it lie?” asks Bernice. “Somewhere in between.” “But how can you tell when you’ve arrived at the truth?” “You can’t arrive with everything in between. That’s why nobody ever gets anywhere.” At another point, when Bernice has referred to a tree as lucky, Warren asks, “Why was the tree lucky? Did it win the lottery?” His father declares, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” Warren snaps back, “I know–it’s made out of trees.” This semantic agility more than makes up for the few cheap shots that turn up in the course of the play: “Don’t call him Master Peece! He hates it when people call him that!” But considering the play’s subject, Anderson’s omission of any “edifice complex” gags deserves some sort of commendation.

The Off-Bowery Theater is an ensemble so closely knit that they almost seem to be one performer. (Indeed, the directing credit for Buddah Haus is shared by the entire company.) Singling out any one member is difficult. The gangly Bill Bonneau radiates a youthful purity as the idealistic Warren Peece; Joel Sanchez and Cheryl Anderson are suitably spaced-out as Art and Bernice (Anderson has a fresh-faced ditziness reminiscent of the early Lynn Redgrave); and Chanda Willis displays versatility in the roles of Saul Suburban, Denise Design, Ed Centre, and the correspondent for the Daily Grind. Ken Krause and Kevin Farley have composed and perform some embarrassingly accurate raga-delic music, and Damien Noll has created a roof that manages to look–well, like what we’d imagine an imaginary roof to look like.

All of these factors together barely make up for the discomfort of the cold and squalid upstairs room at Dreamerz. Take this show, somebody, and mount it in a classier space. Buildings made of dreams are not a reality yet, and Buddah Haus deserves better than this.