Sadly, the title isn’t the only thing about “House” that seems generic. This potentially intriguing theatrical collaboration, for which Jon Robin Baitz supplied the first act and Terrence McNally the second, turns out to be a familiar-feeling and stubbornly lifeless play that shows neither of its fine authors at anywhere near their best. As a star-laden summer diversion produced at the Bay Street Theater in the Hamptons, it’s no doubt above par, but it’s a minor experiment that probably doesn’t warrant greater exposure.
The play also takes place in the Hamptons, but the local setting and a flurry of in-jokes aren’t the only things that give it a written-for-the-occasion feeling. Although McNally’s contribution is considerably stronger, both halves explore the well-trodden ground of marital discord with a palpably felt want of inspiration. “House” bears the hallmarks of writers putting their talents in service to a concept; the play doesn’t feel animated by any strong creative impulses.
It opens with a champagne-and-paper cup toast to the sale of a slightly seedy house with a beautiful — and expensive — bay view. (Tony Walton supplied the meticulously detailed set.) Edith and Michael Stone (Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss) are the sellers, and Lilly and Ben Kerr (Debra Monk and Daniel Stern) are the buyers.
When the effusive real estate agent Honor (Rue McClanahan) ends the awkward currents between the two couples by squiring the buyers back to her office for paperwork, Edith and Michael set about analyzing the last act of a failed marriage. It seems the financial shipwreck that led to the house’s sale is also the occasion for Edith’s exit. A once-noted actress who wants to reclaim both her career and an engagement with life, Edith is dismayed at the sour and cynical observer that her husband, once the editor of a New Yorker-ish magazine, has become.
Michael alternately implores her to stay with him, pontificates on the deplorable state of the culture (“The world changed in ways that precluded our thriving …”) and reviles her in terms as ugly as they are unlikely. “You’re a cold-blooded bitch of an actress,” he spits at her at one point. Who’d stick around for 15 minutes of that, let alone a few decades?
As their talk veers haphazardly from loving to vicious and back again, the detritus of a long union is picked over in the kind of eloquent and intelligent discourse that marks all of Baitz’s writing. But here those qualities seem to substitute for character, not reveal it, as they did so hauntingly in “Three Hotels,” for example. (Indeed in some ways Baitz is revisiting themes from that play here with far less resonance.)
Despite some odd details that include Michael’s obsession with his collection of antique perfume bottles and his love of all things kitsch (this from a straight man?), Edith and Michael’s breakup feels too familiar. Baitz’s writing keeps stubbing its toe on banalities like “I think if we talked it would help” or “You’re making a terrible mistake” or even, believe it or not, “Maybe we could still be friends.” When Edith says with a sigh, “We should have had this out a long time ago,” she could be reading the audience’s mind.
Mason and Dreyfuss give stalwart, professional performances, and the natural rapport between them gives some needed feeling to this talkative couple’s circular finale. But director Joe Mantello has not found a way to alleviate the listlessness that dogs what amounts to a highbrow he-said-she-said session.
Both director and play are better off in McNally’s second act, as Stern gets things off to a fresh and funny start with some wonderful physical business, struggling with frenzied frustration to open a box of books. Indeed Stern’s performance is the evening’s standout. Playing a novelist-lawyer of the John Grisham school who knows too well where he fits on the literary hierarchy, he is an utter delight.
McNally’s work is lighter and livelier than his younger colleague’s, and its natural speech rhythms point up the studied archness of Baitz’s work in the first act. But the subject is again a marriage in tatters, and the emotional dynamics seem to be dictated less by anything intrinsic to the characters than by dramatic necessities. This is a play about the miseries of marriage, in other words, and so the miseries of marriage must be painstakingly revealed.
A sharp remark from Lilly — she quotes a book critic who said “women are not Mr. Kerr’s strong suit” — provokes an anguished debate about Lilly’s unhappiness, which in turn ignites Ben’s anger at her aura of disappointment. She complains that the Ben she fell in love with died somewhere along the way.
The words “I love you” and “I hate you” are again tossed back and forth, and at one point a gun is dragged in for some added tension — an act of theatrical desperation (though it gives Stern another vehicle for great physical comedy). Strangely, what appears to be the root of the matter — their childlessness — is only alluded to.
The play ends with both couples arriving at tentative truces that feel as perfunctory as their prior traumas. “Sometimes things just sorta work out,” says McClanahan’s Honor toward the end of “House,” before delivering the play’s final summing-up of marriage as a necessary natural disaster. And sometimes they sorta don’t, one is inclined to rebut.