Not all life-savers are made of sugar. Some are just tart little words. Here’s a classic example, from everyone’s childhood: Don’t take the candy! A life-saving mantra to bear in mind when the sweet-smiling man in the van pushes open the passenger door, pats the cushioned seat next to him, and offers you a ride.
Repeat after me, kids: Just say no and back away. But, what if he’s a cute young man with campy flair and a goofy, Muppetish demeanor? As Joseph M. Lonely Jr, actor James Flanagan is just that. Now, layer in a few genuinely poetic, borderline-romantic soliloquies about desire and nubile beauty, from the pen of playwright Gregory S. Moss, and you can see how many theatergoers will be prompted to spend the drive home praising the pedophile’s chops. Is anyone else uncomfortable?
Of course. Everyone is. And Woolly Mammoth saw it all coming a mile away. It’s clear that the company wants to foment the perverse allure of an absurdist comic riff on the 1996 murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. And if anyone’s going to take on this phantasmagorical farce it ought to be Woolly, a group that shines when they do the kind of plays that stimulate such deeply conflicted emotional reactions in their patrons. So, do they have a cult classic on their hands?
No, not really. House of Gold, directed with splattery fervor by Sarah Benson, doesn’t fail for lack of ideas. On the contrary, the production has too many impulses to reconcile, and ends up straddling a cynical line between spectacle and satire. There’s nothing wrong with throwing uneasy truths to the wall to see what sticks, but whereas many shows harness this sense of upset and lift it into the realm of compassion, this version of Moss’s new play cloaks itself in an all-encompassing sense of irony, trying a few times too many to hint at some dark logic beyond our grasp.
The dialogue is rapid-fire. The costuming is irreverent and hyper-colorful, like a jaunt down Sesame Street via Pedro Almodóvar. The set boasts three levels, decked out carnival-style with colored fur carpet and rainbow marquee lights. In the great opening moments, the beauty queen’s mother and father (Emily Townley and Michael Russotto) cook breakfast and exchange banal quips in a kitchen full of live microphones, which pick up the crackle of sausage in a pan and the methodical, resentful sounds of chewing. The memory of JonBenet’s body being found in the basement of her own house only adds to that fizzy sense of dread: a home where the walls creak with testimonial, and the hum of the mics tease of the impending media storm.
Beyond that, though, the show is a jawbreaker. Even with some endurance, this piece of visual candy is purposefully impenetrable, and offers diminishing returns the longer you suck on it.
Too much self-awareness does damage to the emotional core of the play. You can still spot the beating heart of it in places, mainly in the strange friendship between The Girl (Kaaron Briscoe, who’s never actually called JonBenet) and her corpulent playground buddy Jasper (Randy Blair). And, from time to time, The Girl seems to try to stop the ride. “I know we’re only playing, but it feels real” she tells Lonely, unaware that he’s only one in a long line of predators – a group that includes the police and her own parents.
It might have tied nicely into a dark critique of Ramsey’s legacy – one of this past century’s most notoriously unsafe children, a girl who was tasted from every media angle and chewed over by national indulgence. Unfortunately, the flashy smiles surrounding The Girl don’t enlighten so much as blind. Soon, the wronged princess is buried under the blare of modern America.
One could argue that’s exactly what happened in reality. But beware: don’t eat the candy! It’s when the production succumbs to the temptations of spectacle, and sacrifices a solid emotional through-line, that our sad morality fable loses its feet. In one moment, Moss turns our attention to the more hateful aspects of the pageant life, keying us in to the consequences of sexualizing our children. In the next, the sight of The Girl’s body being pulled apart in autopsy, organ by organ, gets cued for laughs.
Right about here, the chance to tell a real story is finally gone. Theater doesn’t need to be subtle. Incendiary is great. And a good dose of frenzied incongruity – look, a man wearing a bloody dress! – can certainly amuse. This House of Gold is intelligently built, with enjoyable performances. But as the promising, sharp-witted early scenes start to devolve into a self-aware light and sound show, we get the sinking suspicion that this satire of beauty queens is turning into one itself. Somehow, it all grows more artificial as it goes along. And in the end, what started as a search for a missing girl has uncovered a lot of lovely and no bones.
House of Gold
By Gregory S. Moss
Directed by Sarah Benson
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
HOUSE OF GOLD