Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review - The Question House (Breadbasket Productions and FRIGID New York)

Review by Byrne Harrison

Could you imagine working in a house where you have to phrase everything as a question? Could it be done? Would you go crazy? Would people think you were crazy even if you weren't? How would you answer the phone? And more to the point, why on earth would anyone put up with it?

The final question is the one that ultimately needs to be answered when viewing Tara Dairman's The Question House, now being produced as part of the FRIGID New York Festival. What starts as a fun and clever concept for a sketch or short one-act quickly is buried under its conceit leaving the audience to wonder, "Why did this go on so long?"

Harvey Krytz (Howard Green) runs a research company out of a brownstone in Brooklyn, in which, thanks to rules given to some rabbis by the Almighty in the 17th century, no declarative statements must ever be uttered. To do so will result in the death of the speaker (or, in one very amusing moment, a boombox).

What follows is a delicate high-wire act played by Harvey and his employees, Bingham (Snezhana Chernova) and Margaret (Cam Kornman), as they twists their statements into questions, leading to some inspired, if somewhat mangled, interrogatories. Harvey and Margaret know the truth about the brownstone, but the audience doesn't until Bingham finally uses a declarative statement - "I quit!"

Dairman's play is full of funny moments and clever turns of phrase. Unfortunately, she tries to make too much out of a lightweight concept. This leads to a long and lumbering skit, which, like many a Saturday Night Live sketch, needs someone to bring it to an end. The end, when it does come, is very unsatisfying. Sadly, director Catherine Siracusa only compounds the problem by letting certain comic bits go on too long - a scene in which two paramedics remove Bingham's body was handled in a particularly ham-handed manner - and not reining in some of the actors when they started to chew the scenery a little too vigorously. Several actors appear to be performing in a slapstick farce, others in a plain old comedy. Siracusa needs to take a stronger hand in the production so everyone is on the same page.

Nearly all the shining moments in the play are thanks to the excellent work of Howard Green as Harvey. Playing with a world-weariness at one moment and a vivacious twinkle in his eye at another, Green steals the show. Snezhana Chernova also displays a deft touch with Dairman's language, especially as Bingham plays the cat and mouse game with Harvey that eventually leads to her death. Nick DeSimone does a good job as the bemused Charlie Peat, a man called in to replace Bingham. Completely game to try speaking in questions, even if he has no idea why, Peat is the most realistic person in the play.

Despite its flaws, The Question House shows not only Tara Dairman's interest in and abilities with language, but her willingness to take some risks. It will be interesting to see what she comes up with next.

The Question House
Written by Tara Dairman
Directed by Catherine Siracusa
Sounds Design: Jen Danby
Assistant Director: Charlotte Bence
Stage Manager: Golda Carrico
Lighting Design: Corrie Beth Shotwell
Special Effects Electrician: Michael Broughton
Production Intern: Meredith Druss
Costumes: Catherine Siracusa
Cubes: Andis Gjoni
Consultant on all aspects: Sid Levitt
Graphic Design: Shaun Bennet Wilson

The Kraine Theater
85 East Fourth Street

Through Saturday, March 7th
See for details.