Dysfunctional families are theatrical fodder because everyone has experienced them in some way. Most plays about them offer some hope that lessons will be learned and things will change, but not Will Eno’s “The Open House.” Its family members are at dead ends with no turning back. But despite the gloomy outlook, it’s knee-slappingly funny, especially in Manbites Dog Theater’s perfectly cast and keenly directed production.
Son and Daughter (the characters are generically named) have come home to celebrate their Mother and Father’s anniversary, along with Uncle (Father’s brother). Awkward tensions fill the room as everyone struggles to say something bland enough to stave off arguments and attacks. But Father, confined to a wheelchair after several heart attacks and strokes, bitterly takes issue with everything. He puts down his wife’s cooking and parenting skills, demeans his children for their choices in life and berates his brother for making nothing of himself.
After many failed attempts to lighten the conversation, Son, Daughter and Uncle find excuses to leave. That’s when Father shocks Mother by announcing he’s put the house up for sale. The ensuing twist that completely reshapes the narrative won’t be revealed here but it ultimately seems the only solution to the toxic situation.
Eno’s script exists in an absurdist realm that nevertheless exposes the realities of family conflicts. Director Jeff Storer astutely mines the inherent humor of strained relationships but also unveils the deep hurts and lasting regrets they spawn. His cast admirably handles the non sequitur dialogue and keeps the pacing tight.
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Five veteran actors give career-best performances. Michael Foley’s Father is frighteningly cruel while exhibiting spot-on comic timing. Marcia Edmundson’s Mother is a heart-rending portrait of a wife desperately trying to keep up appearances while revealing her own emotional deficiencies. J Evarts’ Daughter has a cool outer shell that masks debilitating insecurities and guilt, while Matthew Hager’s Son uses sullen anger to hide desperate cries for parental love. Michael Brocki’s Uncle wanders around in a fog of denial about his meaningless life.
Derrick Ivey’s appropriately dingy set has some surprises of its own, supplemented by Joseph Amodei’s sound design, including barking dogs and wailing sirens.
If you’ve been unsure about attending a Manbites production, this is the one to choose for your maiden voyage into its ever-stimulating world.
What: “Open House” by Will Eno
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham
When: 8:15 p.m. Oct 28-29, Nov. 3-5 and 9-12; 2 p.m. Oct. 30
Tickets: $12 weeknights, $20 weekends (seniors/military $2 off; students half price)
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org