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A CurtainUp Review
The House In Town

Can't there be a moment without gossip? ---Amy
It's not gossip when you know the person, it's news ---Jean. This excuse making for her blunt comments is something of a comic leitmotif of The House In Town. When Amy is outraged at Jean's hint about why her husband has consented to a sexless relationship, Jean quips "When it's a best friend, it isn't gossip, it's wisdom."

Jessica Hecht
Jessica Hecht
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Like the under-appreciated The Dazzle, Richard Greenberg's The House In Town begins like a drawing room comedy but turns out to be a drawing room tragedy. And, like The Dazzle (and also , The Violet Hour) House sends the playwright time traveling backwards to Old New York.

Despite some incongruities in the characters' behavior, an overabundance of ideas at the expense of a definitive central theme and a somewhat forced O. Henry ending, House substantiates Greenberg's talent for creating dazzling dialogue and intriguing characters full of quirks to enhance the theatricality of the story he's telling.

While Julia Roberts stage debut in Three Days of Rain got in the way of a fair evaluation of the just ended revival of this very fine play, the actors in the new play are less high profile. Fortunately, they are quite wonderful, especially Jessica Hecht who, as Amy Hammer, the mistress of the town house on West twenty-third Street once dubbed Millionaire's Row, is long overdue to be not just a stage regular, but a major star.

With the director's chair occupied by Doug Hughes, whose many credits include the Pulitzer Prize winning Doubt, it should come as no surprise that the intermissionless drama's numerous scenes outside as well as inside the Hammer home flow along fluidly, and often with stunning dramatic impact. As expectedly, having that affluent house furnished by John Lee Beatty and the cast outfitted by Catherine Zuber makes for an authentic and gorgeous production.

To sum up as much of the plot as you need to or should know: The play opens at the end of a party given by Sam Hammer, a Jewish department store tycoon (Mark Harelik, aptly dapper and firm of jaw as well as slightly enigmatic) and his non-Jewish wife, Amy (Hecht) to usher in the new year. That year being 1929 makes us immediately aware that the looming Great Depression is likely to put a crimp in the lavish life style of the Hammers and their friends -- just as the rapidly rising giant London Terrace apartments across the street is about to rob their house of much of its light.

But while the talk about investments by Sam and his doctor friend, Con Eliot (the excellent Armand Schultz) and regular references to the block long skyscraper complex foreshadow larger societal problems ahead, there are more immediate shadows to be dealt with. Though Amy and Sam seem devoted to each other their marriage has been childless leading to a "what's-the-point " abandonment of sexual relations. A sure sign that all's not well with this marriage. Amy's frequent references to Sam's being a Jew signal that Greenberg's issues touch on anti-Semitism as well as marital dysfunction.

To get all that remains unsaid between the Hammers out in the open, there's Amy's best friend and very outspoken confidante Jean (played with cynical panache by Becky Ann Baker). When Amy in a last desperate attempt at motherhood "resumes" sexual relations with Sam, Jean is quick to see beneath Amy's desperate hope, and also raise the specter of even deeper problems relating to Christopher Valance (a terrific Lincoln Center debut by Dan Bittner), the orphaned seventeen-year-old son of a former employee Sam has taken under his wing.

Amy and Sam's marital drama moves towards a conclusion that's not nearly as transparent as it seems. Besides the already mentioned problems revolving around unresolved marital frustrations and anti-Semitism, Greenberg touches on issues such as the selfishness of the wealthy to whom servants are known only as "the Irish,", terrorism (via Amy's fixation on the earlier in the century downtown riots), homophobia and abortion.

The trauma that has Amy finally emerge less as a sweet eccentric than a woman of will leaves much to puzzle us about the revealed truths. However, Hecht's powerhouse Amy is enormously moving nevertheless and The House in Town is well worth a visit.

The American Plan
The Dazzle
Eastern Standard
Hurrah At Last
Hurrah At Last/Greenberg, Richard 
Take Me Out -- London & NY
Take Me Out-- LA (Los Angeles)
The Violet Hour/Greenberg, Richard
Everett Beekin

Playwright: Richard Greenberg
Directed by
Cast: Becky Ann Baker (Jean Eliot), Dan Bittner (Christopher Valence), Mark Harelik (Sam Hammer), Jessica Hecht (Amy Hammer), Armand Schultz (Con Eliot), Barbara McCulloh (the Hammers' Maid) and Matt Dickson (the Hammers' Footman).
Set Design: John Lee Beatty,
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Original Music: David van Tieghem.
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission
Lincoln Center/Mitzi Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street 212/239-6200
From 5/24/06 to 7/30/06; opening 6/19/06
Tuesday to Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm.
Tickets: $75.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 21st press performance
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