We're clearly in a captive situation at the beginning of Will Eno's The Open House at Manbites Dog Theater. In a dingy, cream-colored room that has seen little life since its period furniture was installed in the late 1950s, three gazes are riveted on an oblivious warden: a scrawny, square-jawed, bespectacled old man in a wheelchair (Michael Foley) who is immersed in The New York Times.
There's a knock at the door. No one moves. When it repeats, insistently, someone takes a calculated risk and lets in a fifth character, the old man's adult son (Matthew Hager), who had just stepped out to bring in the family dog.
Soon, it's evident why the unnamed mother (stage veteran Marcia Edmundson), adult daughter (J Evarts), and uncle (Michael Brocki) are making no sudden moves: initiative is hardly rewarded in this clan. But that's often the case when family members are reduced to emotional hostages whose every word and deed is mercilessly interrogated by a husband and parent who can never be pleased. For the children, coming home for their parents' anniversary is a return to captivity of sorts. When they learn how little their father values the occasion, this nuclear family goes into full meltdown, and both children start looking for opportunities to leave.
After attempting to tear the one-person show to shreds with 2004's Thom Pain (based on nothing), Eno offers this 2014 work as venom for a different theatrical genre: the family drama. But the main thing Eno displays is a fundamental lack of interest in, or understanding of, dysfunctional families. How does a childhood of constant verbal violence produce the son and daughter we see here? Sorry, trick question: when characters are this underdeveloped, we can hardly see them at all. Evarts and Hager are skilled actors, but Eno renders them as little more than props to underscore just how bad the dad is.
Unfortunately, in this production, he isn't bad enough. Under Jeff Storer's direction, Foley demonstrates insufficient range to sell the cruel, soul-crushing omnipotence at the heart of his character. The most dimensional character is Edmundson's wife, whose own prickliness slowly rises to the surface.
Eno's endgame confronts us with an outcome in which the value of a house is placed alongside the value of the people in it. After that reassessment begins, even a bully can see his own worth rise or fall. For better and worse, we learn in The Open House that many of our values are relative—and that our relatives determine more of our value than we might wish to acknowledge.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Captive Audience"