Entertainment » Theatre

The House That Will Not Stand

by Rob Urbinati
Friday Aug 10, 2018
Lynda Gravátt and Marie Thomas in "The House That Will Not Stand" at the New York Theatre Workshop until August 19. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Lynda Gravátt and Marie Thomas in "The House That Will Not Stand" at the New York Theatre Workshop until August 19. (Photo: Joan Marcus)  

Much of New York Theatre Workshop's production of Marcus Gardley's "The House That Will Not Stand" is wildly entertaining. That might sound strange for an adaptation of Frederico Garcia Lorca's gripping masterpiece, "The House of Bernarda Alba," but despite the deadly serious issues of race, class and freedom on which Gardley's house is built, his characters are rather quick with one-liners and quips. Until the richer second act and particularly, the transcendent final moments when the full weight of the play's various themes are felt, "The House That Will Not Stand," while sharp and engaging, is curiously lightweight.

In New Orleans in the early 19th Century, on the night before Louisiana will pass from France to the United States and new laws will revoke privileges for free women of color, the corpse of Lazare Albans, a wealthy white man, lies in state in a room of his mansion. The imperious Beatrice Albans (Lynda Gravátt), his "plaçage" (a free African American woman in a contractual, interracial union) is fiercely determined to secure the deed to the mansion, and prevent her three teenage daughters from yoking themselves into plaçage contracts. When Agnès (Nedra McClyde), desperate for a man, learns that the handsome, eligible Rámon le Pip will be attending a masked ball, she conspires with her younger sister Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), binds the devout Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield) to a bedpost, and sneaks off, defying her mother's command. Agnès doesn't see Odette as competition for Rámon, believing her sister's dark skin a "stain" that makes her less desirable.

Meanwhile, Beatrice's "mad" sister Marie (Michelle Wilson) prowls restlessly in the attic. She has sixth sense, talks to the dead and yearns for her lost lover who played drums in Congo Square. With the help of Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), Beatrice's slave and housekeeper who's anxious to gain her freedom in the few remaining hours while it's legally possible, while it's legally possible, Marie conjures up Lazare's angry spirit, and the old lech takes possession of Makeda. Beatrice's nosy nemesis La Veuve (Marie Thomas) is convinced that Lazare is not the first of Beatrice's lovers to die unexpectedly.

Gardley's play, a vivid exploration of 19th Century Creole culture packed into a single day, is an bold mix of desire, murder, voodoo, betrayal, manipulation, madness, liberation and slavery in all its forms. Despite these complexities, the characters are drawn in broad strokes, and the multiple conflicts are presented in a brisk, comic tone. But as the clock ticks and the desperation mounts in Act Two, the play grows darker. The historical, racial, social and sexual strands of Gardley's play fuse into a powerful climax, where the metaphorical implications of the playwright's house explode.

The NYTW production of "The House That Will Not Stand" is resplendent. The women's impeccably detailed mourning clothes - what Beatrice calls their "best blacks" - are offset by Adam Rigg's structural white mansion with mourning drapes hanging from the windows. The evocative chiaroscuro design is enhanced by Yi Zhao's increasingly moody shadows and Justin Ellington's eerie sound and music.

Under Lilean Blain-Cruz' direction, the seven actresses are forceful, and deftly accommodate the play's shifting tones. As with Gardley's other work - "Every Tongue Confess; On The Levee," "X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation," "And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi" and "dance of the holy ghost," the accomplishment does not match the ambition, and the threads do not fully cohere. But the writer's voice is uniquely compelling, and "The House That Will Not Stand" spills over with strange, spunky language, unusual characters and provocative, underexplored subjects.

"The House That Will Not Stand" continues through August 19 at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th St., New York, New York. For further information, visit the New York Theatre Workshop website.


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