Monday, November 4, 2013

Theater Review Owners -- Yale Rep

Brenda Meaney, Joby Earle, and Anthony Cochrane in Owners
Photo © Joan Marcus, 2013.
Dark Play That Houses Unlikable Characters, Plot Makes Us Want to Move 
By Lauren Yarger
What a bunch of unhappy, unlikable people headed toward a predictable, dark conclusion.

That was the thought running through my head through most of the almost two and a half hours of Owners, the first stage work by groundbreaking English playwright Caryl Churchill (Cloud Nine and Top Girls), getting a run at Yale Rep.

Trying to see what I had missed – like why Director Evan Yionoulis, whose work I respect, chose such a horrible play to produce, and what it was supposed to be about -- I eagerly read production Dramaturg Hugh Farrell’s notes in the program before sitting down to write this review. His take boils down to this: the conflict of two perspectives on ownership: the “western imperative to own everything: meets the “Eastern acceptance of owning nothing.”

OK, let’s say I kind of got that, minus the “eastern” and “western” tags, but more like socialism versus capitalism. I still didn’t care. The characters in this unrealistic 1972 play are so odd and unlikable that it is hard to engage. To top it off, the pay is listed as a comedy and I don’t recall laughing once.

Clegg (Anthony Cochrane) is a repulsive guy, a second generation butcher, who is angry that he doesn’t have a son to whom he can pass on his northern London business “Clegg and Son.” Lack of fertility is, no doubt, the fault of his wife, Marion (Brenda Meaney), whom Clegg loathes mostly because she is one of the most disgusting things in the word to him – a woman. Wives are property in his mind, something to be owned and ordered about. At best they are like dogs to be trained. He spends a lot of time plotting how to kill her. But she’s the one who has spent some time in a mental institution?

Marion has been keeping herself amused by buying up houses and flipping them for profit. She is particularly happy to become the owner of a home in which her former lover, Alec (Tommy Schrider) and his fiancée, Lisa (Sarah Manton) live. The couple, with a third child on the way and Alec’s demented, elderly mother (Alex Trow) in residence, has fallen on hard times, especially after Alec seems to stop caring about everything. He is socialism personified. When the flat is robbed, he wonders why they should call the police – after all, if the burglar really wanted the stuff, who are they to insist they owned it?

When he isn’t trying new ways to kill himself, Worsely (Joby Earle) acts as Marion’s agent and intimidates Lisa with threats of higher rent or removing the roof of their home to get the family to move out. Lisa turns to Marion, the only person she knows with some knowledge about housing issues, for help. Marion strings her along for a while before revealing that she is, in fact, the owner causing her problems.

A couple of things might alleviate the couples’ struggles, however: Alec can agree to reignite his affair with Marion and Lisa can agree to give up her new baby so Clegg can finally have the “and son” part for his business. This fits right in with the idea that those with money are “owners” able to buy and sell whatever they choose at the expense of those without money…. Meanwhile, Worsely extends his suicidal thoughts to plotting to doing away with Marion and the whole bunch of them. We can see where this is all headed and it isn’t going to be good. Though an end to these folks might not be such a bad idea….

Driving me to more dark thoughts were the costumes (Seth Bodie, design) and wallpaper patterns (Carmen Martinez, design) with their 1970s patterns and mismatched colors. When the building’s new owner, Mrs. Arlington (also Trow), showed up in an orange/red wig, purple dress and magenta shoes, I secretly hoped Worsely would take her out before finding a way to commit suicide.

I also must admit that I simply didn’t get the mannequins. There are a few placed throughout the set. Clegg waits on one at the beginning of the play. Yionoulis has the actors freeze frame like mannequins at the end of scenes. Why? Got me.

So, if all of this sounds like a fun time at the theater, Owners is the play for you. Me, I think I might have preferred to stay home, where yes, I own.

Owners continues through Nov. 16 at Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel Street. New Haven. Performance times vary. Tickets: $20-98:; 203-432-1234, Box Office, 1120 Chapel St., at York Street.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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