We’ve all been guilty of it. We tend to have a visceral dislike of perfection, of people who can seem to do no wrong and, even worse, are happy and perky in their perfection. Double that for reactions to well-adjusted, loving, and psychically-aligned families. For centuries, great drama has dealt with conflict and imperfection. Strife within a family unit has continued to be an attraction for audiences who love to watch other peoples’ misery and, very often, uncomfortably squirm at horrendous behavior on stage that becomes a mirror.

Manbites Dog Theater, the jewel in what is now Durham’s newest destination for hip nightlife, is presenting The Open House by Will Eno, a playwright who has become known as the Bard of modern American dysfunctional families. It opened off Broadway in March 2014 and received numerous honors and awards including being named one of the ten best plays of that year. This production is a regional premiere.

As often is the case with most Manbites Dog productions, you walk into the theater unprepared for the current seating or set configuration. This was quite standard and the whole effect of the set was repression and banality at its worst. We were looking in on a living area in a typical home, sparsely furnished in a nondescript light tannish color that seemed to scream “no color please, we are unhappy, miserable people.”

The play begins with all five actors revealed at one time sitting around this room. None of these characters (at this point) have personal names – they are simply known by their generic familial designations. It’s as if Eno is speaking to all of us in an indictment of all humanity, so don’t any of you watching this feel superior to the people on stage. The main character is Father, played with great verbal brutality by Michael Foley. He is a bitter, mean-spirited sixty-something, confined to a wheelchair and spending his time abusing and demeaning everything and anything anyone says. Mother (Marcia Edmundson) attempts, but mostly fails, in trying to keep the peace and deflect the hateful barbs of Father. (Edmundson’s portrayal reminds me a bit of Edith Bunker from the 1970s iconic TV show All in the Family, although lacking any semblance of humor.) The adult children, Daughter (J Evarts) and Son (Matthew Hager*) give the impression of being severely damaged goods as a result of Father’s unceasing neglect and criticism, going all the way back to the time they were toddlers. Rounding out this pathetic group is Uncle, played with bemused befuddlement by Michael Brocki.

While The Open House is not in two acts, it is very clearly broken into two distinct and vastly contrasting parts. The first pretty much deals with some lame attempts to “understand each other” that prompt verbal assault by Father. On the show’s opening night, I sensed, at first, a hesitancy in the rhythm of the exchanges among the characters, but things eventually flowed much more naturally. As one-by-one the characters exited for off-stage chores, there was almost a sense of relief that we were finally being spared eavesdropping on a web of very disturbing relationships. We were slowly morphing into the next section as all the actors were called upon to make a complete about face into characters unlike the repressed sad sack ones at the start.

Director Jeff Storer handled this remarkable transition seamlessly and with great finesse as we moved from dark, biting, and hurtful humor into an over-the-top, almost farcical sitcom. It began with J Evarts, previously portraying Daughter, becoming a giddy, aggressive real estate agent coming to show the house to prospective buyer Brian (Michael Brocki), even though Mother knew nothing about this. Through some rather contrived plot developments, all the original characters were gone, replaced by the same actors playing five new ones. Stealing the show was Matthew Hager, previously the sedate Son, now a painter/landscaper stoner who has some of the best comedic scenes of the play. Even Father returns as the vibrant, athletic brother of the realtor. The house itself also undergoes transformation, revealing color and possibility that years of acrimony therein had hidden.

This play ends as abruptly as it starts and we don’t know what finally happens to any of the original family. Ar the end, the revitalized home was filled with wisecracking, goofy people all rejoicing as they found the dog that had run away at the start of the play. Are these people any better off than the withered family of the first half? Is it inevitable that serious self-examination leads to more despair and becomes a futile chase?

This was a well-paced and illuminating production whose actors all appeared to be having a great time, each with two very different personas. The first part (the family) tries, in vain, to straddle the line between dark, sometimes infantile humor and an authentic examination of very unhappy and unyielding people: the result was that both approaches suffered and neither rang true. That said, the totality of The Open House is a delightful ninety minutes of compelling theatre that reels you in from the start and holds you till the partially disturbingly happy ending.

*Editor’s Note: Matthew Hager is CVNC‘s theatre editor but he played no role in the production of this review.

Note: The Open House continues through Nov. 12. For details, see the sidebar.