The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage

A world premiere delves into author Dan O’Brien’s murky past.

A scene from The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage, directed by Michael Michetti, at The Theatre @ Boston Court.
A scene from The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage, directed by Michael Michetti, at The Theatre @ Boston Court.
(© Ed Krieger)

Dan O'Brien has written an American gothic tale on a par with Pulitzer Prize winner Sam Shepard's best works. Like many of the characters in Shepard's plays, the protagonist seeks the truth, but the answers will not assuage his guilt or pain. A mystery with no answers, The House in Scarsdale is a frustratingly accurate depiction of how life's puzzles aren't resolved as they are in the movies.

Dan (Brian Henderson), a successful writer, lives the "perfect" life with his actor wife, but his deteriorated family roots are strangling him. His parents disowned him with little reason and they have sued many family members for an inheritance. His brothers and sisters are as isolated as he, but no one seems to understand why their family collapsed, and strangely, other than Dan, no one seems to want to heal old wounds. He interviews estranged family members for an autobiographical play, and every answer he receives raises more questions.

Dan's story compels the audience to both empathize with its protagonist and stand back as the play paints him as an unreliable witness to his history. Dan's mental stability seems similar to that of the rest of the family, so the author trusts the audience to be both perplexed by and absorbed in the tale. Dan visits a slew of relatives, all played by the same actor (Tim Cummings). His aunt and uncle, sister and brother, a psychic and a detective, all add new levels to Dan's investigation as does Dan's conscience, also played by Cummings. O'Brien leaves the two characters who could shed the most light, Dan's parents, out of the play on purpose. Their absence and the secrets they hold tight are what makes The House in Scarsdale so fresh. He doesn't want his protagonist to gain resolution.

Cummings has the flashier role(s), enacting characters of different ages, genders, and nationalities. His voice, his posture, even his weight, changes from character to character. Without makeup, he transforms into the British psychic, the mentally unbalanced brother with a heavy gut, and the bitter step-grandmother who burdens Dan with the sins of his parents. Henderson holds his own against Cummings. He portrays Dan as determined but skittish, praying for answers, but desperate to remain in the dark. The audience can taste the pain as Dan's relatives fling abuses at him, mostly for others' misdeeds. Henderson physically portrays Dan's emotional shrinking to a heartbreaking effect.

Without much action or stage design, director Michael Michetti gives his two actors room to draw the pictures the audience needs to understand and empathize with the characters. Everyone is enveloped in agony and yet Michetti doesn't allow that sadness to weigh down the piece. He brings the absurdity and the humor to the forefront. With a bare set, Tom Ontiveros' projections become the third performer. Utilizing realistic and abstract visuals, Ontiveros transports the actors to multiple locations.

What is truth? That question bounces around the stage like a metallic ball. Are the stories Dan has told accurate? Are Dan's own intentions honest? Is The House in Scarsdale actually the memoir our character Dan writes? After all, O'Brien shares many of the same qualities as the character we see before us. Or is this all just a think-piece from the mind of an imaginative writer? This Rube Goldberg-like contraption of a back history, whether fact or fiction, leaves audiences fascinated once the play concludes.

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