The living room set of Will Eno’s The Open House at Off Broadway’s Signature Theater could easily be the set of a warm family sitcom. And Eno’s script indeed comes loaded with a high jokes-per-page count, and at my performance at least, the audience was as generous and reliable as a laugh track.
But the humor in The Open House mostly takes the form of characters seeking out some trace of familial affection and finding none. An unnamed Son (Danny McCarthy) and Daughter (Hannah Bos) return home to celebrate the anniversary of their late-middle-aged parents. The patriarch (Peter Friedman) is the cancer of the family, draining the vitality of the people around him with violent sarcasm masked as dry wit. The Mother (Carolyn McCormick) murmurs motherly platitudes to her grown children but doesn?t have any real warmth to offer. An Uncle (Michael Countryman), like an abused dog, hardly seems welcome to sit on the furniture.
The vitriolic banter, while fun to witness, takes its toll. A typical reaction from the Father to the Daughter’s simple declaration of ”I’m fine”: ”Maybe some young man makes you feel like you are, briefly, but, late at night, by yourself, you know it’s not the case. You know you’re not fine.” Each member of the family suffers from physical afflictions, from niggling pain to more serious conditions: frequent leg cramps, a pinched nerve in the wrist, an unidentified lump near the spine, heart disease. They’re all dying by a thousand put-downs.
Just as the nastiness of the first half of the play starts to get repetitive, Eno introduces a clever trick. One by one, each of the family members leaves the home for some errand or another, and the actor returns later as a different character. Bos exits first as the Daughter and returns as Anna, an ebullient real estate agent tasked to sell the family home. Anna literally lets the light in by opening the curtains that the Father has always demanded remain closed, and by the end, the living room is populated by a group of well-adjusted outsiders.
The family drama is probably the most ubiquitous stage genre there is, and very often, it depicts an unhappy clan that gets unhappier and unhappier until something breaks. (Sometimes that ”something” is the audience’s interest in not-so-uniquely unhappy characters.) But in The Open House, just as the misery and back-biting starts to feel excessive — even indulgent — Eno takes a left turn and finds a way to make harmony as radical and satisfying as discord. B+
(Tickets: signaturetheatre.org or 212-244-7529)