Beth Corning describes her new dance piece At Once There Was a House as “a zany theatrical ride exploring the question of ‘whatever happened to DICK & JANE?’” I’m not sure that description aptly describes the work she has created. While I have no doubt that the insular vision of ideal American family life represented in those old grade school reading primers was the original impetus behind the piece, the work presented at the New Haxzlett this weekend (a revamped and enlarged version of a piece she originally created a decade ago) seems less interested in answering that particular question than in opening new questions about how occluded our interior lives can be, not just to others, but also to ourselves.
At Once There Was A House features six performers – four professional dancers (Corning herself, Michelle de la Reza of Attack Theater, Tamar Rachelle Tolentino of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Yoav Kaddar, head of dance at WVU) along with actor John Gresh and musician Jackie Dempsey. Although not all six move with equal grace and skill, each performer brings enormous charm, charisma and energy to the work; Dempsey, in particular, is a sly and engaging actor who connects winningly with the audience. The six performers present characters who appear to have gathered for a high school reunion (variously named “Jane” and “Dick”), and the piece proceeds as a series of vignettes that exposes their inner yearnings, anxieties, and strivings.
As in previous works, Corning demonstrates a sure eye here for the metaphorical image that captures ineffable and complex inner states – the unstable picket fence in an early moment, for example, or the lyrical disjuncture between an intimate pas de deux and a mundane description of a typical morning’s breakfast taken from Don DeLillo’s novel The Body Artist. But the vignettes felt more tenuously held together in this piece than in some of Corning’s previous works; the story logic was much more disjointed and dreamlike. At some times, that dream felt like a nightmare – the vignette in the middle of the piece featured a house on fire center stage, for example – and at others, like a strange moment out of a Keystone Cops film (Gresh runs around the stage chased by a mat of artificial grass in one of the more absurd moments of the evening). And as with any dream, what it was “about” felt enigmatic and elusive, touching on issues of identity, loss, aging, and the impossibility (and, perhaps, undesirability) of recapturing the past.
The collision of the past into the present is also a central thematic concern of Anthony McKay’s new play Endless Lawns, which is getting its world premiere at The REP under the direction of Gregory Lehane. The title refers to the landscaping challenge presented by “High Chimneys,” the glamorous Connecticut estate on which twins Torch and Flo Gregson (Laurie Klatcher and Cary Anne Spear), daughters of a wealthy film star, grew up. As a teen Ray (Jason McCune) had a summer job mowing the estate’s endless lawns and watched from atop his riding lawnmower as the girls entertained elite beaus like Torch’s boyfriend Graham (Mark Staley), the son of her father’s lawyer. Now Ray is the manager of the local Kmart, and Torch is his employee and girlfriend – the sisters, having been disinherited by their alcoholic and abusive father, are barely clinging to the socioeconomic ladder they once proudly stood atop. The play’s conflict is set in motion when Graham – also no longer a member of the New England aristocracy – suddenly returns after a thirty year absence and upends Torch’s hard-earned equilibrium.
McKay tells a story that has comic and tragic turns, and Lehane and the ensemble make the smart choice to keep the dialogue and tone light and lifted and let the tragic moments take care of themselves. The ensemble is terrific, in particular Laurie Klatscher, whose Torch starts the play as a woman who seems to have come to contented terms with the crappy hand she’s been dealt and then, after being suddenly reminded again of all she’s lost over the past thirty years, finds her priorities and dreams realigned by end of play. It’s a complicated, rewarding emotional journey, and Klatscher shows us every nuance of it.
Like Corning, McKay offers an opportunity to reflect on the many ways we “can’t go home again”- both literally and figuratively – in his theatrical exploration of a pair of sisters who can neither live the life their childhood promised nor fully escape it.