While I intend to dive into every gallery show, performing arts production and book with the same level of optimistic open-mindedness, the truth is, works occasionally come along that I’m rooting stronger for than others. Case in point: James Still’s play “The House That Jack Built,” having its world premiere at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.
For one, there’s the risk factor. It takes enormous faith to offer an untested work at an institutional theater. Indiana audiences don’t exactly flock to the unknown and offering one can lead to marketing nightmares. While having a qualty theater that offers the tried-and-true is important, I also selfishly want the IRT to take more chances.
There’s also the unique thrill of having a first look at a show, having little idea about the characters, the plot, or even the tone of the work. Seeing a new play means being thrown into the deep end of someone else’s world. And I love that.
I’m also eager to love a play by Still, the IRT playwright in residence (who actually resides elsewhere) whose last few works haven’t given me much to praise.
Alas, “The House That Jack Built” doesn’t change that. The uninspired Thanksgiving story about friends getting together, along with their respective partners, for a holiday meal. The complication is that the Jack of the title (the sister of one/husband of the other) has died and his loss is still deeply felt.
Peopled with characters whose traits feel pinned on rather than organic, the play has the guts to quote Chekhov without the vision to stand up with him. A good Chekhov play makes you ache for its characters—for their humanity and for their ability to love and hurt each other, often at the same time. They are also rooted in place and time. Still’s characters, in a generic Vermont setting, don’t feel capable of doing much damage to each other, rendering the friendly ending a foregone conclusion. The production itself doesn’t help. Everyone is amiable but there’s no bite, no bile, and no energy in the relationships. I’m still not sure if couple Jules and Eli actually are attracted to each other. Even the anticipated arrival of the play’s token eccentric doesn’t pay off. She turns out to be another collection of often-inconsistent traits rather than a full-blooded human being. Emotions seem to last only about as long as the speeches about them, then fade away.
None of which would matter much if the play were particularly funny or insightful. "The House That Jack Built" contains a few smiles, a few laughs, and some writing that may have seemed dynamic on the printed page. Here, though, it comes across as just barely warmed-up leftovers.
Thanks, nonetheless, to the IRT for trying something new.