There’s no question Caryl Churchill was furious during the three days it took to write Owners. (She was, she says, also groggy and torn apart from the effects of a disastrous miscarriage–and it shows.) This 1972 black comedy, the British playwright’s first produced play, seethes with a vindictive, unprocessed hatred of, well, “owners”–i.e., as Wilde put it, people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. It’s as if Churchill foresaw in a crystal ball all the hatred and mayhem Margaret Thatcher was about to bring down upon England–and got royally pissed. But it was a costly wrath: during those three red-hot days Churchill apparently never calmed down enough to confer more than a remote reality upon her characters, let alone achieve the scathing satirical detachment of her later, better Cloud 9 and Top Girls.
Crudely seen (the only way to approach this socialist melodrama), the characters divide into owners and chumps. Chief among the former is Marion, a former mental patient, now a predatory real estate broker whose credo is to grab and hold onto whatever and whomever she craves even if it kills them (at one point she unhesitantly blurts out, “We men of destiny get what we’re after”). The other sharks are Marion’s lummoxy husband, Clegg, a butcher who wants to kill his infertile wife for not providing him with an heir, and Marion’s stooge Worsely, who secretly loves her.
The chumps are Lisa and Alec, a bitterly poor young couple who live with two kids and a senile parent in a cramped flat in a gentrifying neighborhood of north London. Lisa, who washes hair for a living, is pregnant with a third child they can’t afford, while her laborer husband, Alec, mired in morose passivity, indifferent to everything around him, is unable to work. An intended mockery of impotent intellectuals, Alec sits and stares in wonder at the pointlessness of everything.
After we’re introduced to this pathetic family, Churchill twists the knife by having the family robbed of what few luxuries they possess. Lisa and Alec, at the proverbial end of their tether, are clearly human lambs to be shorn and sacrificed.
What follows is a feeding frenzy by the greedy, needy, and vicious “owners.” Marion buys the house that Lisa and Alec live in. She intends to resume an affair she had had with Alec; she tries to buy out their lease, then bribes them to stay so she can have Alec nearby for sex calls. But when vacant, burnt-out Alec shows her how uninterested he is in making love, Marion decides to get at him by offering to buy his new baby. Taking advantage of Lisa’s misery and confusion, Marion even considers hiring her as her own child’s nurse. When Lisa summons up enough energy to spit out “I may not earn as much as you but I’m not worth nothing,” we know she’s kidding only herself.
Meanwhile the hulking, moronically jealous Clegg seeks revenge for Marion’s open lust for Alec. He takes it out on Lisa, sexually assaulting her to spite his wife. Finally, the scummy Worsely agrees to commit the final, fatal act that ends this sick and sorry show.
Owners couldn’t be more heavy-handed if Churchill had dropped the bomb on Alec and Lisa. It’s so pitiless it ends up being pointless. And humorless–the audience never gets the satisfaction of booing and hissing the villains; proletarian protest this may pretend to be, but it lacks the sharp edge of a spoof, and it’s too limited to suggest any larger indictments. All we get is a rogues’ gallery of caricatures–idiot innocents versus soulless villains. When the outcome is this inevitable, forget about surprises; several people in the audience even ended up siding with the stronger, more energetic bad guys–the last thing the playwright intended. (The same thing happens in Dangerous Liasons, where the victims are such fools that audience interest, perhaps even sympathy, goes to the exploiters.)
In his sincere–and unconvincing–Lifeline Theatre staging Gregg Mierow just plays along with Churchill’s rant as if he has decided the surface will do even if the substance isn’t there. In any case this script’s sheer lack of passion takes its toll throughout the ordeal. Melody Rae’s malevolent control freak Marion only needs a broomstick to complete her soap-opera character; despite Rae’s attempt to breathe ambiguity into this treacherous “top girl,” Marion’s one vulnerable outburst–“I know none of you loves me”–passes too weakly to matter. Adam Bitterman richly raunches it up as the swaggering butcher (“I’m more Othello than I am Hamlet”), but face it, the character is a one-man toxic-waste dump. James Sie makes you wish Worsely’s first suicide attempt hadn’t failed.
Exasperating to watch as the clay-pigeon couple, Catherine Martineau and Michael Stevenson don’t betray any sense of the clear and present danger surrounding them. That may ring true to their portrayals of victims, but it’s damn hard to care about characters who get their kicks from walking off cliffs.