The House Keeper
Project Arts Centre, Dublin
The love of money is the root of all evil, scolds the Bible, but the lack of money – as George Bernard Shaw pointed out – bears the same fruit. Morna Regan’s new play for Rough Magic, her first full-length drama since 2001’s Midden, is a moral teaser that tests both propositions. A single mother – recently laid off, evicted from her home and at risk of losing her kids – breaks into the Manhattan brownstone of an isolated, wealthy shut-in for a creative feat of burglary: She has come to steal the house.
It’s an arrestingly daffy premise, but one so thorny with implausibilities that your attention frequently snags, and Cathy Belton, as Mary, wisely conveys it as the steely act of a desperate woman. “Amazing what you can do when you have children,” she tells Ingrid Craigie’s acid-tongued, hammer-wielding homeowner, Beth.
Regan initially occupies herself with flustered disputation about the inequality between the rich and the poor, but this is merely killing time until the big reveal: they are not alone.
Ominous thuds herald the coming of a behemoth, Beth’s husband Hal (Robert O’Mahoney), previously thought dead, but whose twitches, convulsions and leonine eruptions are all symptoms of a dreadful disease that makes him act like Robert O’Mahoney.
Now this is where the play really ought to begin, and Regan, who seems as hesitant with her New York codifiers as the cast can be with their accents, is more fascinated with warping realism toward something surreal yet archetypal, a path pursued gleefully and wickedly by Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Locked in a bitter war of attrition, haunted by an absent child, Hal and Beth could be dead ringers for Albee’s George and Martha.)
But director Lynne Parker pulls back from the delicious tang of the fantastic, with a production emphasising physical and moral atrophy; characters often address each other across chilly chasms of distance on Bláithín Sheerin’s partial set, and every utterance echoes through the space.
The plot, though, becomes similarly confined. Depending on ever escalating moral dilemmas for a character who has already reached her breaking point (her entering point, too) there’s only so much tension generated by whether Mary can be bought off by Hal, an irredeemable corporate villain of Madoffian proportions. “I sold things that didn’t exist, to fools with no money to buy ’em, who borrowed from banks with no bullion to back them up.”
That Mary may assent to a much grimier proposition serves to render everyone corruptible, but also hollow. “How else is this going to end?” says Hal, and indeed the play seems trapped.
Had it intruded on more fully fleshed characters or pushed towards the summit of tragedy, we’d have a deeper investment, but this feels less like a committed occupation than a swift, diverting trespass.
Runs until May 12th