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A CurtainUp Review

I can't kill myself by fire. It's far too hot.— Worsely, musing on one of his many attempts at suicide.
Brenda Meaney
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
In presenting Caryl Churchill's first professional staged play, Owners (1972), Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven is providing an opportunity to check out the playwright's early dramatic point of view and an introduction to her somewhat quirky style. Style that would be honed in later, more successful, works such as Cloud Nine, Top Girls and Serious Money.

Churchill is considered one of England's best dramatists and her plays almost always focus on gender, economics and power. This early work is a unique blend of all of these themes. As with many fledgling playwrights, Churchill overwrites, resulting here in a too long (two and a half-hours), eventually diluted drama.

Set in London in 1972, the central character is an ambitious, aggressive realtor named Marion (Brenda Meaney). She's riding high in the real estate boom and sets her sights on acquiring a property in "hot" North London. Surprise, the owners of the house, Alec (Tommy Schrider) and Lisa (Sarah Manton) aren't interested in Marion's money. Another surprise, Alex and Marion were once lovers. Lisa is expecting a child and wants to stay put, while Alec has drifted into a passive existence, "sitting quietly, doing nothing."

Churchill has been labeled by some as a "socialist feminist" which she does not deny. (Anyone hear echoes of Ayn Rand?) And women are almost all- powerful in her plays. Not only is Alec a mere wisp of a man, but Marion's husband Clegg (Anthony Cochrane), a butcher, has been almost emasculated by Marion's singular purpose to own, own, own— and fantasizes about an early demise for her. Death is also on the mind of her protégé Worsely (Joby Earle) a Walter Mitty type dreamer, not of success, but of suicide. As a running joke, Worsely (nice pun!) appears in a variety of bandages as testament to his failed efforts.

The extent of Marion's diabolical nature is revealed when she decides the way to outfox Alec and Lisa is to "acquire ownership" of their baby. It's the kind of ploy you might have expected from one of Joe Orton's weird characters.

Buried, not too deeply, in the playwright's surface economics is a much more complex philosophy about what it means to "own." To her mind, and many of her persuasion, owning means an exclusive relationship with a thing or a person. And with exclusivity comes the possibility of exclusion, from social segregation to emotional domination. If you're still with me, you'll appreciate Owners a great deal.

This is an interesting play and often quite funny even if it outstays its novelty. Director Evan Yionoulis has done a fine job in keeping a proper balance of emphasis between comedy, drama and economics. No small feat.

The acting is top drawer with, surprisingly, the weak men more interesting than the sometimes one-note women. Carmen Martinez has provided flexible sets, which effectively switch scenes quickly, and Seth Bodie's costumes which hint at the recent demise of the "mod" look, helps set time and place in the right orbit.

We've come to expect thematically challenging plays from Yale Rep, and Owners is just such a work. It's also gratifying to know that the playwright continues to develop. Her latest work, Love and Information, which is set to is to open off-Broadway this season is said to use over 100 characters in 57 scenes. Like her Marion, Churchill thinks big as well.

Owners by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Evan Yionoulis
Cast: Anthony Cochrane (Clegg), Joby Earle (Worsely), Brenda Meaney (Marion), Sarah Manton (Lisa), Tommy Schrider (Alec), Alex Trow (Alec's Mum, Mrs. Arlington)
Scenic design: Carmen Martinez
Costume design: Seth Bodie
Lighting design: Benjamin Ehrenreich
Sound design: Joel Abbott
Vocal and dialect coach: Beth McGuire Fight director: Rick Sordelet
Stage manager: Sonja Thorson
Through November 16.
Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street at York New Haven, Ct.
Running time: Two hours, thirty minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Performances: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. matinees Saturdays at 2.
Tickets: $20 to $98 at (203) 432-1234, or purchase online at
Reviewed by Chesley Plemmons at the Nov. 5 performance.
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