By James V. Ruocco
Taking as inspiration of sorts - a HGTV-style reality show - and capitalizing on its over-the-top allure and obviously rehearsed, camera-ready dazzle, Long Wharf's "Dream Hou$e" giddyaps to a decidedly frenzied beat chock full of glitz, phony smiles, showbiz overkill and cherry jubilee hysteria iced with mouth-watering vanilla cream frosting and rainbow sprinkles.
Everything is meted out with pacy ruthlessness and well-heeled malaise.
The laughs and caveats are deliciously wicked.
The plot spins and tilts with playful, reordered abandon.
The language is fully attuned to the hypocrisy of the la, la television world it openly knocks.
And just when you've figured things out, a shock, a jolt or an unexpected surprise changes the course of absolutely everything.
Then again, that's half the fun of this brand-new play, which was the recipient of the 2022 Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition and subsequently performed on the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage in February.
Clocking in at roughly 95 minutes and performed without an intermission, "Dream Hou$e" is set against the backdrop of a popular TV show titled "Flip It and List It," hosted by Tessa, a wonderfully cheery, but plastic house hipster whose phony charm and faux smiles promise her revolving weekly guest stars the deal of a lifetime.
Or, so they are led to believe.
Up for grabs in the show's latest episode is the spacious family home of two estranged Latina sisters (Julia and Patricia), which, was originally built by their great grandfather. To their surprise, it's worth a lot of money but they have to act fast (their mother has just died) in order to get the right price.
Several questions arise as both sisters have second thoughts about the house where they were both raised; its historical and cultural significance; its bill of sale; its harbored secrets; its memories; its misguided dreams; and the nagging reminder that once the house is sold, it will no longer be theirs or kept in the family.
As written by Eliana Pipes, "Dream Hou$e" comes packaged with a landscape of ideas, partnerships, discoveries, promises, lectures, sellouts, savagery, shivers, demands and opening and closing acts. This being a play that purposely attacks the "entertainment value" of reality TV, the playwright injects plenty of well-timed barbs involving pop quizzes, bonus rounds, redemption rounds and tell-all confessions and engagements where both sisters are instructed to naturally address the at-home audience (ie., pretend the camera isn't there) in mock documentary fashion.
Accompanied by verbatim that adheres magnificently to the cut-and-pace theatrics of reality TV, Pipes purposely voices "Dream Hou$e" with words, feelings, thoughts, expressions and experiences that effectively portray the world and mindset of her lively parody. Yes, it's all in jest. Yes, it's all perfectly timed, rehearsed and recorded. Yes, there are laughs. Yes, there is pathos. Yes, there is drama. Yes, there are arguments and bitchiness. Yes, there is capitalization. Yes, there is gentrification. But, it's all real. It's all hands-on. It's all icily orchestrated. It's all delivered with snap, crackle and pop.
Staging "Dream Hou$e" is Laurie Woolery, a director who tackles Pipes' playtext with the care and understanding it needs to take flight without ever once veering off track, confusing the audience or second guessing the validity of the words, the situations, the story arcs or the characters at hand. As interpreter, she is open-minded and creative, crafting a production that is both complex and flavorful and one that not only entertains but maintains interest throughout.
What's fun here is Woolery's high admiration for the obvious silliness of reality TV and its many components while the camera rolls, stops for a retake, an impromptu coaching session or an extraordinary, off-the-cuff moment that springs from absolutely nowhere (no, spoilers here), but makes perfect sense in the evolution of the "Dream Hou$e" scenario. Scene by scene, she fills the Long Wharf stage with splendid directorial choices and a teetering sense of urgency and resonance that invites the audience to tune in, sit up straight, relax and enjoy every bit of sting, bite, giggle and masterclass cliche she tosses in their direction.
"Dream Hou$e" stars Marianna McClellan as Tessa, Renata Eastlick as Patricia and Darilyn Castillo as Julia. As Tessa, McClellan delivers a hilarious comedic portrait of a reality-show personality so fake and cheery, you'd swear Woolery plucked the actress from HGTV and dropped her head-first onto the Long Wharf stage. Her's is the comic performance of the season - think Paula Prentiss dipped in paraffin - injected with playful doses of medicinal flick, twitch, switch, jerk and smile - exaggerated to perfection in grand, masterclass style. As Patricia and Julia, Eastlick and Castillo deliver exceptional, well-rounded performances that heighten the play's emotional velocity. Each actress connects with the rhythm, voice, command and personality of their character, using Pipes' serio-comic palette to great effect.
The production also benefits from a hand-picked, seven-person ensemble who work tirelessly as set and camera crew members of the HGTV-type reality show moving props, hanging pictures, moving scenery or whatever else the script calls for. All of this backstage wizardry is meticulously timed, staged and orchestrated under Woolery's crafty, hands-on tutelage.
A captivating piece of theatre - and one you won't want to miss - "Dream Hou$e" is an in-you-face satire rife with humor, personality, character, sarcasm and accommodation. It whirls and twirls. It kicks you in the ass. It surprises. It leaves you numb.
It is yet another crowning achievement for Long Wharf Theatre and one that is fueled by playwright Eliana Pipes' verbal certainty and freshness, Laurie Woolery's directorial snap and a trio of generous, well-driven performances that combine acidic smarts and scalding specifics with skewed aplomb and trigger-happy glee. What's not to like! Bravo!!!