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Wisdom Bridge Theatre

The My House Play could be a pilot for a sitcom. It’s a little wacky like Ozzie and Harriet, a little blue-collar like All in the Family, and not too much in its own right. But then it’s in the nature of a sitcom to be innocuous. And the little-bit-of-everything approach dovetails neatly with the something-for-everyone imperative. The problem is that derivative works, such as The My House Play, tend to lack the impact of the original. I found the comedy somewhat stale, and patently cute, but the opening-night audience appeared to love it. After a while, they sounded like a laugh track.

I imagine that situation comedy evolved out of comedy of manners. In making the transition to TV, it abandoned specific plot for a flexible, nonserial formula, and dumped volatile satire in favor of chucklehead repartee. Eventually, I Love Lucy exhausted every possible variation of the sitcom formula, and it was left to Norman Lear to repackage the whole thing for the Pepsi generation. Meanwhile, the genre proved so immensely popular that theater audiences–who imagined themselves above the proletarian decadence of TV–began to crave an elevated version. And so Neil Simon got rich. Now, with Simon disintegrating into nostalgia and autobiographical schmaltz, playwright Wendy MacLeod, fresh from the Yale School of Drama, rises to captivate an audience too young to have thrilled to Barefoot in the Park.

Meet the Battaglia family. Ernie and Frances, the parents, highly resemble Archie and Edith Bunker, only they’re younger and less frumpy. They have two children, but instead of boys–like Wally and the Beav, or Ricky and Dave–they’re girls! Charisse, the older sister, is suspected of being a lesbian, but thank God she’s not. And Fiona is a colorful bopper who’s kind of, sort of going steady with Sid, a nouveau-geek who hangs around the Battaglias a lot because he doesn’t have a heartwarming two-parent family of his own. Gosh, all we need now is a love interest for Charisse. That would be Buzz, a construction worker with ambitions of going to clown school.

The Battaglias live in one of those cheaply constructed tract houses that were mass-produced in the 50s. Michael Philippi’s set design, by the way, is so definitive, so subtly tongue-in-cheek, that it belongs in a natural history museum. Anyhow, this house is scheduled for demolition. Route 66–the highway, not the TV series–is being expanded. But Ernie decides to make a stand, so he runs out and buys a bunch of comically antique guns to defend his property. He summarily drafts the girls to the cause; all three don khaki and tote guns, and peer out the windows at the encroaching road crew. Frances, however, remains attired in her customary muumuu, and Sid is politically opposed to firearms, yet both gamely decide to weather the siege.

Jeez, I feel like I’m writing for TV Guide. And what about Wendy MacLeod? Is she writing from TV, you know, spoofing it? That would make this (dare I say it?) a postmodern comedy. Or is she writing for TV, that is, auditioning for a career on the left coast? Right now, I’m leaning toward the latter interpretation. This play is too slick, too unself-consciously white bread, to be a highbrow in-joke. Even the title, The My House Play, sounds promotional. I mean, the play as opposed to what? The My House TV series? My House action figures? My House, First Blood?

Nevertheless, MacLeod’s sense of humor relies heavily upon a sort of video cultural literacy. Brand names–like Evian, Twinkie, Visa, Spaghettios, Mr. Microphone, Trans-Am–are given comic-icon status, and are meant either to be funny in themselves or to evoke comic associations. For instance, when Buzz comes to woo Charisse, he presents her with a bottle of Evian. “Water,” she says, her voice flat, her face deadpan. “I hope it’s the kind you like,” Buzz replies. Well, I laughed, anyway. But then I used to watch reruns of Three’s Company back-to-back until I decided that TV, as a medium, was an insidious Pavlovian conspiracy to amputate my free will and debase my sense of humor. I haven’t owned a TV in five years, and I’m feeling much better, thank you. Although sometimes–I can’t help it–I still laugh on cue.

Yes, The My House Play is a real gagfest (in both senses of the word), so you should know what you’re getting into. Ernie has his comic malapropisms, just like Archie Bunker. When Frances contracts food poisoning from a can of Spaghettios, Ernie insists she’s a “hypodermiac.” Later, he relents and defends her by asserting that “Nobody’s at their best when they’re vomitose.” Frances, like Edith Bunker, has her witlessly witty lines too, like when she opens her little heart-to-heart with Charisse with the line, “Darling, did I do something to make you a lesbian?” I could quote gags indefinitely, but I imagine you’ve heard something like them before.

The problem is the characters in The My House Play never come to life. They’re zombie clones from primetime limbo. Gags just fall out of their mouths like rotten teeth. Only Sid, who’s a precocious, gawky thrasher without a skateboard, seems in any way original. Sid’s role in the formula isn’t new–precedents are Maynard G. Krebs and Eddie Haskell–but at least his character is freshly observed. Mostly, I credit Michael Stoyanov (who plays Sid) for finding the human center of an otherwise mixed bag of eccentricities. That’s not to say that the rest of the cast, who I shall neglect to mention, aren’t all very fine, professional, and adequate for their rather unchallenging roles. But, like, so what?

OK, let’s skip the comedy, and the characters. You want situations? We got all kinds, including bittersweet. How about a white family, grappling with one of the more burning issues of modern life–suburban displacement? No? You want to see some cute adolescents, with their crazy ways and clothes, making their first stumbling forays into courtship? Wait a minute, we got two married people, see, on the brink of middle age, just beginning to fathom how really terrific each other is. How about a daughter leaving home with the man she loves, at the age of 19, just like her mother did? What’s the matter? Don’t you like anything? What do you want? Art?

Maybe it’s just me, but I bottom out on this stuff so fast. The My House Play, well, it’s as smooth and predigested and uniform as grits. And how do you criticize grits? Gee, these grits are fantastic! Or, these grits are an outrage! Or, this is what grits are all about! But, after all, grits are grits, right? What’s there to get excited about? Unless maybe you were sitting there one day, eating your grits, and you wondered what they were made of. But you really didn’t care. They’re just some soupy, denatured filler–like your culture, like your whole life. Better not to think about it. Maybe you like grits, and don’t want to spoil it. Well then, go for it. Here’s a heaping eveningful.