Theater review by Helen Shaw
Three houses are built into the title of Marcus Gardley’s superheated New Orleans drama The House That Will Not Stand. The first is the sumptuous Creole maison onstage, with high shuttered windows, a mist of honey-thick light, a madwoman prowling the attic and a dead white man laid out on the dining-room table—the standard Southern tragedy package. The second is Gardley’s inspiration: Federico García Lorca’s claustrophobic masterpiece, The House of Bernarda Alba. And the third is Lincoln’s famous characterization of the divided and dis–United States.
Ominously for the play’s free women of color, it is the early 19th century, and the U.S. has just snapped up Louisiana for a song. Gardley changes Lorca’s domineering widow Bernarda into Beartrice Albans (Lynda Gravátt), a tyrannical matriarch who moves in a weird web of flesh and ownership. She’s the longtime placée (a common-law wife or concubine) of the dead man on the table, and although she’s free, she owns a slave: Makeda (the wonderful Harriett D. Foy), whose late-in-the-play aria about freedom stops the show. Beartrice’s furious attempts to prevent her daughters—Agnès (Nedra McClyde), Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield) and Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt)—from contracting themselves to white men fires the girls’ long-simmering rebellion. Lust, violence and wild undead spirits eventually overtake the house.
Though it’s luscious and structurally artful, the play seems somewhat divided against itself. In the first half, Gardley changes Lorca’s mood from Spanish lyric tragedy to ribald French comedy, and Lileana Blain-Cruz steers the deft cast through tart and sharply funny exchanges, backhanded insults and dirty jokes. We’re carried away by the production’s beautifully realized atmospherics, exquisitely rendered by set designer Adam Rigg and lighting designer Yi Zhao. As things grow more intense in the second half, Gardley tries to change the plot’s hardwired doom and gloom to notes of uplift and liberation, putting the full power of his poetry into that task. But the characters seem to fight him, and their stated motivations begin swinging wildly: Is Beartrice sex-positive or not? Does she value freedom or not? Having started on firm foundations, this excellent play seems to shudder at the last.
New York Theater Workshop (Off Broadway). By Marcus Gardley. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.