Three daughters are more than enough for the rigidly fierce matriarch in Marcus Gardley’s play “The House That Will Not Stand,” which had its Off Broadway premiere Monday at the New York Theatre Workshop after a 2012 run at the New York Stage and Film Company. Gardley has based his “House” on “The House of Bernarda Alba,” the Federico Garcia Lorca play in which a mother works to keep five daughters under her control after the death of a second husband.
Despite the two extra girls, the mother in Lorca’s drama had a much easier time of it. All she had to contend with were her daughters not putting on makeup or wearing the wrong color dress (green instead of black) or losing their precious virginity.
Gardley ups the dramatic stakes mightily by turning his female characters into well-to-do free women of color in New Orleans who, in 1813, must confront losing a few of their rights after Napoleon’s bargain-basement sale of Louisiana to the United States. The transplanting and the back-dating of the Lorca play are fascinating, not to mention utterly seamless in Gardley’s hands. It’s also very funny, especially in the often uproarious first act.
Gardley’s bio in the program reprints a magazine quote calling him “the heir to Garcia Lorca, Pirandello and Tennessee Williams.” Charles Ludlam’s name should be added to that list. Repeatedly, Gardley replicates Lorca’s purple-prose dialogue only to puncture it with some lowdown, commonplace and often filthy one-liner.
The mother’s definition of “my pie,” for example, tops anything Ludlam ever wrote about the female anatomy. There’s even a crazy aunt in the attic, and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction of that character’s entrance on Adam Rigg’s vertiginous set recalls “Jane Eyre” at its most harrowing.
Here are women who never take a prisoner and know how to dish the dirt. Gardley manages to cram more conniving, intrigue, back-stabbing and plot twists in “House” than all seven hours of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and you don’t need to be up on your Lorca to make sense of it.
Big drama requires big performances, and it’s a major theatrical feat that the talented ensemble of seven actresses under Blain-Cruz’s mercurial direction achieves awesome effects without anyone cross-dressing. Despite the vast difference in ages and physical types of these women, Blain-Cruz keeps them all on the same page of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.”
And that’s only the first act!
Two daughters (Joniece Abbott-Pratt and Nedra McClyde) disobey their mother (Lynda Gravatt) when they attend the annual masked ball. It’s there that they might find a white man to make one of them his common-law mistress.
This practice, known as “placage,” is laid out in vivid detail in Isabel Allende’s romantic potboiler “Island Beneath the Sea,” and yet, with several hundred fewer pages at his disposal, Gardley does a good job of describing the mating ritual. His comic gifts allow him to ladle on the exposition without it ever getting tedious; in fact, the verbose descriptions and explanations often add to the hilarity.
The mother, having been the mistress of two white men with white wives, knows first-hand the evils of which she speaks, and forbids her daughters to give up their freedom for the slavery of “placage.”
But it’s a very complicated world in which these women live, and the far more somber but equally theatrical second act makes that clear. As the mother knows, financial comfort has its advantages. The spinster aunt (the excellent Michelle Wilson) goes from crazy to totally bonkers when she dreams of the dead black man she once loved. Unlike her sister, she never sold her soul to white men, and it’s at her request that the voodoo-practicing slave (Harriett D. Foy) allows herself to be possessed by the spirit of the mother’s second white lover.
It turns out to be just one of many stratagems this servant has devised and exercised to win her beloved freedom. That she faces a very uncertain future in the new Louisiana doesn’t immediately threaten her zeal — or that of the two daughters (Abbott-Pratt and Juliana Canfield) who manage to escape their mother’s clutches.
Bracketing “The House That Will Not Stand” is the ditzy-like-a-fox performance of Marie Thomas, a busybody who has an eye on adding to her real estate portfolio in the new New Orleans.
In between Thomas’ appearances, there are the bold performances of Gravatt and Foy. Gravatt embodies the commanding matriarch from hell, but like the worst of mothers she never fails to make perfect sense.
And as the slave who has served her well, Foy manages to be alternately noble, venal, supersmart and demented, and occasionally she’s all those things at once. It’s a performance not to be missed.