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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

to tell.

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

proud parent.

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

performance.

— Nicole Plett

Safe as Houses, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $35. To Sunday, April 5.


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