The Housekeeper may be too conventional for its own good, but it is intelligently crafted and engagingly entertaining.
The Housekeeper by Ginger Lazarus. Directed by Shana Gozansky. Presented by Fresh Ink Theatre Company at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Boston University Boston, MA, through January 30.
By Ian Thal
When it comes to the popular products of film, television, and theater, there is ironically, a standard formula when it comes to shaking up the formulaic — add something different, a bit incongruous, to the tried-and-true. Nothing too radical, just off speed enough to freshen up the usual proceedings. Ginger Lazarus’ new play The Housekeeper follows that well-worn path by adding a ghost to what is essentially a well-crafted but lightweight family drama.
Adelina (Margarita Martinez) is the recently hired housekeeper for Charlie Frey (Dale J. Young) a middle-class project manager raising a fourteen year-old daughter, Kaila (Alexis Scheer). Carson, Charlie’s wife and Kaila’s mother, has died; enough time has passed so that the family has clearly gotten through most of the grieving process. At this point, Charlie and Kaila simply need someone to pick up after them. Up until her death, Carson (Gillian Mackay-Smith), a well-regarded professor of feminist and gender studies, had taken care of all the household chores: shopping, cooking, bill paying, and laundry. Surprisingly, when Carson reappears as a ghost whom only Adelina can see, she isn’t remotely surprised; Adelina is accustomed to earning the trust of her employers’ dead wives.
Charlie appreciates the work that Adelina is doing, but he is often exasperated at the challenges of being a single father to a teenage girl. Kaila, typical for her age, is often bratty. Ambivalent about her extracurricular activities (softball and band), her main obsessions are a crush on an older boy at her school and a mania for Hello Kitty that is as much religious idolatry as it is unrestrained consumerism. Adelina has her own problems: while she loves putting other people’s lives in order, she too, is a single parent and she is struggling to scrape together enough money to ensure that her son, Alex, can start at MIT next year. The only luxury she allows herself is a subscription to the opera.
Lazarus’ script features witty dialogue and sympathetic, yet flawed characters (except for Adelina, who is flawless). Lazarus’ attention to detail is particularly admirable (Carson’s ghost, while discussing her scholarly fascination with fairy tales, notes that “everything has a meaning” and just about every element of The Housekeeper contributes to the overall dramatic pattern.) However, the emphasis on likability means that the stakes are never all that high; the narrative establishes a status quo that will be temporarily upset and then reconstituted, like the pilot episode for a television family drama. Other TV devices are utilized: Adelina’s salt-of-the-earth work gives her solitude and purpose, while Charlie and Kaila are helpless without someone “doing the work of the house.” This notion of employment, in which the bourgeois masters, because they do no life-enhancing labor, are alienated from the world is a staple value of American sitcoms. Outside of a brief interlude at the beginning of the second act, when Adelina’s backstory is filled in by way of a parade of masked characters (as a commedia dell’arte enthusiast, I wondered why an Arlecchino mask was selected for one of these characters when Il Dottore would have been a better choice), the play sits squarely in the conventions of the pseudo-naturalism to which television and film audiences have been long accustomed.
Magical-realist takes on families recovering from the loss of one of its members has become fashionable on Boston stages. Last year saw Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s staging of Jenny Schwartz’ poetic God’s Ear, as well as Apollinaire’s presentation of Nicholas Billon’s Greenland. Both scripts dealt with the immediate aftermath of the death of a child. (The Housekeeper reunites Young, Scheer, and Mackay-Smith from Apollinaire’s Greenland.) Genially realistic, The Housekeeper has none of the mythic content of Greenland or the fractured surrealism of God’s Ear. Emotional trauma remains intractable in the scripts of Schwartz and Billon; Lazarus offers us the comforting reassurance that families can survive loss, that teenagers still love their parents despite behaving horribly, and that parents (as tyrannical as they seem), are simply trying to protect their adolescent children from making tragic mistakes.
Yet, however conventional The Housekeeper may be, it is intelligently shaped; even if one wishes there had been more instances of stylized theatricality, the production is engagingly entertaining. No doubt some of its diverting strengths can be chalked up to director Shana Gozansky and dramaturg Sara Brookner. Carson’s ghost presents tantalizingly lost opportunities: to bring in some macabre humor, to suggest that the spirit is a figment of Adelina’s imagination, to explore issues in feminist thought.
Scheer as Kaila, captures the mood swings of early adolescence, an irrational willfulness that is driven by impulsiveness, magical thinking, and flickers of sanity. Mackay-Smith gives a delightfully eccentric performance as Carson, the ghost who wants to make friends with the housekeeper. Young fully embodies the role of a decent father who feels he is in over his head and appreciates any help he can get. Martinez adds plenty of charisma to Adelina’s easy-going competence.
The scenic design by Arianna Knox is simple, but effective. It is Gabriel Graetz’ selection of props that really give the play its distinctive visual character: look at the stuff on the kitchen and living room shelves, the dishes, cookware, books, and tchotchkes — the percentage of thrift store and yard sale finds indicate how Carson and Charlie subsidized their middle class stability. Meanwhile, Kaila’s room is outfitted in the latest in Hello Kitty merchandise.
If only Lazarus had given her sweet-natured characters some ragged edges. Taking a risk would not only have pushed the actors further, but pushed the theatrical envelope beyond the realm of byte-sized television drama.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.