American playwright Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy is counted as quite odd. In crazy house, an old man wallows in his malice as his equally annoyed adult children scramble for his money. It was an entertaining yet equally engaging showcase for two megawatt US talents: Bill Pullman, who reveled in the role of the dying patriarch Daniel, and Strange things star David Harbor, who plays his son Michael clad in the powers of an injured bear.
They are fun to watch. Pullman grumbled, drooling, and opened his freshly cooked soup with toddler’s glee. And Harbor returns to his childhood, too, torn between raising his aging father and drowning in the childish frustrations when his efforts fail. The appearance of capable nurse Lillian (Akiya Henry) for a moment shakes up some feelings for both of them. But then Michael’s money-hungry sister Pam (Sinead Matthews) and his invertebrate brother Nedward (Stephen Wight) appear with a plan to take back the family home and strip the siblings of their inheritance.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel keeps things steady and ensures brilliant, brilliant performances from this A-list cast. But still, it’s all very old-fashioned stuff, preventing an uncomfortable and unnecessary debate about transgender people, which could easily have been written down at any time in the last five decades. . Frankie Bradshaw caters to the design of a dilapidated suburban vintage home that wobbles when someone slams the door. There is an equally macabre plot device that revolves around a letter from Michael’s deceased mother. And it seems like the show’s creators were so keen to beat things up at the two o’clock mark that the play just ended without addressing the suicide-related moral dilemma it poses.
It’s also unclear what purpose, other than entertainment, all this shit is for. We learn that Michael is recovering from an incident where he believes he is Jesus – Rebeck sought inspiration from Harbor’s own mental health issues when she wrote the role for him that. But there is a real lack of understanding about psychosis, stigma, and recovery here. And there is also a lack of psychological nuance to the relentlessly bleak depiction of family cruelty: real-life abusive families often mix insults at them with just enough kindness to keep relationships going. Their system is intact.
Hidden somewhere in the wobbly foundation of Crazy house is the message that the supposed psychopath Michael is the most sane person here. He’s the only one who isn’t driven by some ruthless agenda and the only one trying to do the “right thing”. Perhaps, breaking up is the only logical response to being part of this f***ed up family. Harbor delivers a memorable performance when this afflicts everyone, but this play isn’t built solidly enough for it to take home.
‘Mad House’ runs at Ambassador Theater until September 4