Will Eno’s ‘The Open House’ or, what is a family?

The Open HouseSignature TheatreWill Eno is about to have his hit Yale Rep play from a few seasons ago — “The Realistic Joneses” — reopen on Broadway, but he also has a brand new play, “The Open House,” in previews at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd St.

Eno was one of the artists in residence at the Signature last year and he received a commission from them for a new play (as did David Henry Hwang, whose marvelous “Kung Fu” just opened in another space at the same midtown complex).

I was lucky enough to see a preview of “The Open House” last weekend and was knocked out by its wit and daring in examining family life in a nameless American suburb. The mixture of realism and fantasy is very cunning, particularly in the second half when characters leave the house and reappear as other people.

The characters in all of the Eno plays I’ve seen are obsessed by language and tend to question the meaning of the words coming out of other people’s mouths. Magically, Eno has the ability to turn this verbal examination into often brilliant black comedy. Ironically, the openhouse3plays are about people who claim to be trying to understand what their friends or loved ones are saying, but who spend most of their time talking past each other.

There is a Beckett-like grim comedy in the family discussion that takes up the first half of “The Open House.” Two grown children — Hannah Bos and Danny McCarthy — have come home to visit their pleasant but wickedly passive-aggressive mother (Carolyn McCormick) and their misanthrope father (Peter Friedman) who is recovering from a stroke and doesn’t have a kind word for anyone.
Literally lurking in the background is dad’s odd brother (Michael Countryman) who is still mourning the loss of his wife.

Eno turns the bickering and misunderstandings of this family into high comedy (in addition to the tinge of Beckett, the play also reminded me of the weird “happy” family in Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders”).

The play begins to turn into what is almost science-fiction when one of the children leaves the cozy house to pick up deli sandwiches for lunch. An accident happens and one by one the family members leave and are replaced by a real estate agent who is showing the house to potential buyers and then we meet the clients.

Eno has the same actors who played the family members return — one by one — with new identities until only the father remains and we start to wonder if this might be a vision in his head due to another imminent stroke. Or is Eno simply visualizing his belief that the difference between family members and strangers is minimal in some cases?

Director Oliver Butler stages everything in a realistic visual style, but we are slowly cut adrift and then stuck in a nightmare situation straight out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

“The Open House” is certainly not for everyone — and I doubt that it will become a major commercial success — but it feels like a new classic.

The Open House Signature Theatre

Joe Meyers