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A CurtainUp Review
The House That Will Not Stand

He's not the first lover of yours to die mysteriously though. Is he, Madame? — La Veuve
The House That Will Not Stand
Lynda Gravatt and Marie Thomas (photo:Joan Marcus)
A bountiful supply of snappy, snarky dialogue puts the darkly comical gears in motion in Marcus Gardley's The House That Will Not Stand. Let's hope it makes you pause from your laughter long enough so you won't miss all of the almost lyrical vitriol exchanged during an early scene between two free women of color in New Orleans. Flavored with bits of Creole patois, the formality that also frames this undeniably bitchy communion between society rivals is as hilarious as it is formidable. But it is only a prelude to a series of highly stylized confrontations and melodramatic events that serve to distinguish a very clever play about freedom.

The year is 1813 and before the Louisiana Purchase ended the laws and regulations administered under French and Spanish rule. It was a time when a woman of color (preferably light skinned) in a relationship — extra legal yet contractually recognized as a plaçage — with a white man could inherit a sizable portion of the man's estate upon his demise.

A terrific cast, all women of color, under the supple direction of Liliana Bain-Cruz, portray characters that are striking in their aligned sisterhood and peripherally with those created by Federico Garcia Lorca in his classic drama The House of Bernardo Alba. Witty and close to operatic in tone and temperament, this audaciously conceived play revolves around the desperation and the anxiety of the suddenly widowed Beartrice Albans (Lynda Gravátt) in her concerns for herself and her three daughters. Her white protector's body is presently on view in the living room of their stately Victorian home.

A condolence visit by a social adversary Le Veuve (Marie Thomas) is fueled by her belief that Beartrice murdered him. The Alban's family maid Makeda (Harriett D. Foy) is so determined to purchase her freedom that she joins forces with LeVeuve when offered a bribe. Added to their collaborative effort is a bit of voodoo with the artistic intervention of choreographer Raja Feather Kelly and sound and original music composer Justin Ellington.

Beartrice knows she must secure the future of her three daughters, not only by obtaining the deed to the house but by keeping her daughters safely under lock and key. The daughters, however, have their own plans for their future.

The oldest daughter Agnes (Nedra McClyde) sees her future as placée to gentleman she has had an eye on and whom she proposes to see again at the masked ball. Her plan calls for the middle sister Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt ) to pose as her mother/chaperone. Because the youngest and darkest (“the family stain”) sister Maude (Juliana Canfield) disapproves of their plot to secure a protector for Agnes and is most likely to betray them to their mother, she is tied up to her bedpost.

Let's not deny the play its melodramatic trimmings and a bevy of performances that vibrate with unleashed and thwarted sensuality. Yet, where would a Victorian household be without a mad sister who is kept locked (except when she isn't) in her room. Is Marie Josephine (Michelle Wilson) really mad or is she just waiting for the right séance to release her so she go off and look for her lost lover. Don't think that the younger sisters aren't going to hatch up plans of their own, some that don't exactly comply with those of their mother.

Hard pressed as I am to single out one or two performances among this excellent ensemble, it is the impassioned resolve that Ms. Foy unleashed as the slave Makeda that is most memorable. But this is ensemble acting at its very best in this unusual and beautifully structured play.

Most revelatory is the sexual frustration experienced by these three beautiful but egregiously cloistered sisters. Their body language appears almost as a ballet despite being concealed beneath the elaborate period costumes designed by Montana Levi Dianco. There is simple elegance to the chandeliered multi-room setting designed by Adam Bigg that purposefully affords no competition for the often dazzling text within it.

Gardley, whose play X or The Nation v Betty Shabazz was remounted in the spring of 2018, has been acclaimed by the New Yorker as the heir to Garcia Lorca, Pirandello and Tennessee Williams. Whether this accolade may be overreach, The House That Will Not Stand is filled to the brim with a distinctive poetic lyricism that famously defined these masters of dramatic literature.

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The House That Will Not Stand by Marcus Gardley
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

Cast: Joneice Abbott-Pratt (Odette Albans), Juliana Canfied (Maude Lynn Albans), Harriett D. Foy (Makeda), Lynda Gravátt (Beartrice Albans), Nedra McClyde (Agnes Albans), Marie Thomas (La Veuve), Michelle Wilson (Marie Josephine)
Scenic Design: Adam Rigg
Costume Design: Montana Levi Bianco
Lighting Design: Yi Zhao
Sound Design & Original Music: Justin Ellington
Movement: Raja Feather Kelly
Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes including intermission.
New York Theatre Workshop 79 E. 4th Street
From 07/11/18 Opened 07/30/18 Ends 08/19/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 07/28/18

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