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Review: `Safe as Houses’
This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
March 25, 1998. All rights reserved.
A splendid house in Connecticut, the safe and comfortable
abode of the well-off Landis family, is the setting for Richard Greenberg’s
dazzling new play, "Safe as Houses," receiving its world premiere
at McCarter Theater. In rich, believable language that ventures from
the poetic to the prosaic to the profane, Greenberg gives us a poignant,
15-year saga about the clash of conventional middle-class goals and
aspirations with the stuff of real life. Under Emily Mann’s deft direction
and on Thomas Lynch’s elegant single set, Greenberg’s drama reaches
out and grabs us with six compelling characters and an honest tale
The play opens at night on the exuberant and wayward Ken Landis as
he exchanges intimate words with his young lover, Tina. Landis is
a self-made man who found success as a magazine publisher; Tina is
the daughter of a friend who has been a sometime part of the household
since childhood. Framed by a pair of French doors, the couple exchange
words that are heartfelt and galvanizing — and overheard by a
man who is a complete stranger. Next morning we meet Irene, Ken’s
wife, played by Michael Learned, an affectionate partner and equally
The couple’s golden child, Scott, played by Fredrick Weller, has just
graduated from Princeton. At home also is little brother, Timmy, who
is 17 years Scott’s junior and regarded by his parents as something
of a late-life joke. The handsome Scott has brought home his friend
and fellow graduate Rob Siegal, masterfully played by Gus Rogerson.
The anxious Rob is bound for Harvard Law School, and visited by nightmares
of John Houseman; yet he confidently predicts Scott’s future as "the
first Yid president." Everyone seems to agree that this privileged
young man from a smart Jewish family is going somewhere. Until choice
and chance smash that dream to smithereens.
The production is another tour de force for actor David Margulies
who, as the acerbic Ken Landis, takes his character on a 15-year journey
from the involuntary retirement of his late 50s to failing health
and final dementia in his early 70s. Intelligent, loving, but emotionally
dishonest, Ken fills his grand living room and the lives of its occupants
with his roiling personality. For every setback in his successful
life, he can name a culprit (invariably a woman). Yet unlike his wife,
he is incapable of navigating the vagaries of aging and the loss of
a son. Michael Learned plays Irene Landis with strength and dignity
but scant development. More complex and compelling is Barbara Garrick
as Tina, who takes us from her playful, sexy 20s of the opening scene
to Act III which she haunts like the reincarnation of a damaged poor
relation from Ibsen or Chekhov.
Even as we wonder how Greenberg can resolve his layered portraits
of this constellation of carelessly damaged lives, he produces a powerful
endgame that includes two beautiful, simultaneous monologues by Irene
and Tina. The crowning touch is the reappearance of actor Fredrick
Weller, no longer the golden son Scott of the 1980s, but as their
perfectly delineated, cast-off son Timmy of the ’90s, and clearly
a joke no longer.
A 1980 Princeton graduate, playwright Greenberg has maximized his
homecoming with apt references to the college scene. These range from
Rob’s early line about reading in Firestone Library, to Ken’s ironic
but purposeful reference to "that finishing school in New Jersey"
where his son earned the credentials requisite for a brilliant future.
The majority of the McCarter first-night audience that warmly greeted
the play was so close in age, education, and income to these householders
that self-conscious laughter and gasps of recognition punctuated the
— Nicole Plett
Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $35. To Sunday, April 5.
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