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The House in Town

Jessica Hecht gives a bravura performance in Richard Greenberg's semi-satisfying new play about the upper class. logo
Mark Harelik and Jessica Hecht
in The House in Town
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In setting his semi-satisfying new play The House in Town in 1929, Richard Greenberg quickly sets up the expectation that financial loss will be the subject du jour. But by play's end -- which takes place a few months before the Crash decimated Wall Street -- the fortunes of its main characters, Sam and Amy Hammer (Mark Harelik and Jessica Hecht) are still intact. Yet, this middle-aged couple has suffered considerable losses -- of friendship, trust, and innocence -- with the ultimate loss just around the corner.

The House in Town, which is being given its world premiere at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, is in some ways a typical Greenberg drama, full of overly grandiose speeches and unsubtle metaphors balanced by moments of poetic genuis and deep feeling. For those keeping score, the play ranks somewhere in the middle of the increasingly prolific Greenberg's oeuvre in terms of quality; it's a masterpiece compared to last season's Neil Simonesque A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, but falls far short of such more accomplished pieces as The Dazzle and Take Me Out. Luckily, it has received a first-class production, under the astute direction of Doug Hughes, which smoothes over some of its flaws.

Above all, the play is truly blessed by a bravura performance by the underappreciated Hecht, who brings enormous likeability, empathy, and hidden strength to a character that could come off as a thoughtless twit or a masochistic victim in less accomplished hands. Hecht has never failed to impress me -- even in such misbegotten productions as the recent Broadway revival of Julius Caesar or the Roundabout's misguided After the Fall -- but her work here is on an even higher level than usual. (There's even a glimpse of a future Mary Tyrone.)

At first, one doesn't realize that Amy will be the play's center. She's a pampered WASP wife, married for two decades to Sam, a Jewish department store owner. Amy spends her lazy days lunching, reading, and catching the occasional afternoon opera with best pal Jean (the ever-invalauble Becky Ann Baker). Even from the play's get-go, set in the last minutes of the Hammers' New Year's Eve party, Amy seems a bit soft and unformed. She casually lets out anti-Semitic remarks and seems blissfully naïve as to how people outside her class live. Yet we come to realize that what at first appears to be an almost childlike innocence may simply be her form of protection against life's harsher truths.

An inescapable truth for Amy is that her marriage has remained childless. Although she may have reached menopause, she is nevertheless determined to try one last time to conceive a baby. Her mission coincides, not so coincidentally, with Sam's growing relationship with Christopher Valence (the very fine Dan Bittner), a 17-year old boy whose mother was recently killed by a taxi cab. The real relationship between Sam and Christopher, whose mother worked for Sam, is not hard to guess -- although Greenberg introduces an alternative possibility through the mouth of the gossipy, slightly vulgar Jean.

The other unspoken and unknowable truth for the play's characters is that their era of grandiosity is almost at an end. But since we know this, having Greenberg hammer the point home with one too many blunt speeches about architectural changes in the city -- most pointedly, the construction of London Terrace opposite the Hammers' 23rd Street townhouse -- is a dramturgical error.

That townhouse is nicely delienated by John Lee Beatty's fairly minimal but beautifully detailed set. Aided by the gorgeous costumes by Catherine Zuber, the production offers a proper taste of how the other half lived. Still, a true sense of opulence is missing, and the play also feels slightly under-populated with just five characters (the fifth one being Jean's doctor husband, Con, played by Armand Schultz).

Ultimately, The House in Town might work better not just with a larger cast, but in a longer, two-act form rather than its present 90 minutes. As it stands, Amy undergoes one rude awakening after another in too-quick succession in the play's last quarter. Fortunately, Hecht and Harelik, who also does excellent work as the conflicted Sam, are to be commended for pulling off these sharp turns. But they can't fully stop the last section of this House from seeming like it's on shaky ground.

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