Jessica Lange was once asked if there couldn’t have been someone on the set of the painfully overwrought Southern gothic movie, Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart,” who could have got everyone to tone things down, to which she giggled, “You mean, like the Taste Patrol?” Large stretches of Theresa Rebeck’s new, wildly dysfunctional family drama “Mad House,” now running on the West End, suggest that the Patrol has been similarly missing in action.
You can see why actors of the caliber of David Harbour and Bill Pullman — plus equally gifted British talents Akiya Henry and Sinéad Matthews — wanted to appear in this world premiere. Rebeck has barely been produced in the U.K., but it’s immediately clear she knows how to whip up bitterly comic set-pieces for actors to sink their teeth into. But she has come up with a clutch of juicy, smart-mouthed roles rather than making them cohere into anything with true resonance beyond the melodramatic twists and turns of a secondhand family plot.
With three siblings fighting it out over a house and their inheritance as the exasperating patriarch slides downhill, the set-up dates back to “King Lear.” Here, it’s relocated to a falling-down family home in the middle of not-quite-nowhere on a property which, of course, turns out to be ripe for redevelopment — a fact conveniently unnoticed by its current inhabitants. We are, in other words, in that American theater staple: the family at war with itself, as everyone savages one another with salty words even more than, you should pardon the pun, deeds. But whereas Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” took that structure, added metaphor and created a zesty evening of Kentucky Fried Chekhov, Rebeck merely piles on incident and revelation mostly motored by withheld information.
The last-minute, contrived appearance of a letter spilling the beans on past and present relationships echoes Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” which, coincidentally, recently appeared in London with Pullman in the lead. Given his typical casting as benign — he plays nice so thoroughly that even Meg Ryan ditches him in “Sleepless in Seattle” — he must have jumped at the chance to play the epically selfish bastard that is Daniel, father to Harbour’s nicely chaotic, long-suffering Michael. It’s like watching a tyrannical character in a Martin McDonagh play, and watching Pullman savor his character’s cruelty is almost as guilty a pleasure.
In Moritz Von Stuelpnagel’s painstakingly naturalistic production, the two of them drive each other not so quietly nuts. At the end of his tether and almost constantly raging against the impossibility of living with his infuriating, foul-mouthed father, Michael hires Lillian (wonderfully unflappable Henry), a hospice nurse from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Her skin color alone initially awakens all of Daniel’s racism, but under threat from Michael, he’s cunning enough to withhold his views in exchange for diatribes of ridiculous remarks about gender identity — though other than indicating his viciousness, Rebeck’s purpose in using this particular grievance is unclear.
Not only does sharp-eyed Lillian soothe the atmosphere, she’s there to draw out Michael’s pain and his own backstory as we learn that, eleven months ago, he left “the insane asylum.” At that point, Michael’s lean, grasping brother Nedward (impatient Stephen Wight) appears. Rebeck further heightens the atmosphere with the surprising (not in a good way) arrival of a drunken Michael returning home with two prostitutes. The darkly comic tone now reaching the deliberately absurd, Rebeck then combines the physical collapse of the father with the sudden and (too) neatly timed arrival of the wonderfully grating Matthews as Michael’s mercilessly pragmatic sister Pam. Cue: Instant first act curtain.
Inevitably, in the long-days-journey-into-night second act, with the sleepless family all coming in turn to the back stoop of Frankie Bradshaw’s set, everyone proceeds to open up and/or play the blame game. Because the acting is so strong, especially from Henry and Matthews — both of whom radiate intensity, the former in shimmering forgiveness, the latter in rancid resentment — the family misfortunes seem, moment by moment, to add up. But the lack of a controlling vision, beyond everyone misunderstanding one another, is made manifest by the blackout ending which leaves the audience unsure whether to applaud. The action doesn’t properly end; it simply stops.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with choosing high-stakes melodrama as a form. But when the second half is bent on examining everything from mental health and self-protection to scarred childhoods and assisted dying, the plot twists become ever more jarring and the form grows increasingly at war with the content. Despite the light touch of the hard-working cast, the play’s over-inflated highs and lows are like eating a meal of sugary food: It provides a rush, but leaves you unsatisfied.