Review of ‘Mad House’: “The sanity of the insane”

© Marc Brenner

David Harbour and Bill Pullman star in Theresa Rebeck’s first West End original, which explores the faults and flaws of a dysfunctional all-grown-up American family. After his attendance to the press night, Guillermo Názara tells us about one of London’s most anticipated plays of the summer, to let us know what’s awaiting behind the walls of its asylum.

What glues the fabric of a family? We’re often told it’s love, but that’s so-called unconditional feeling may in fact not be that often as we’ve been promised. Instead, selfishness, greed, interest and occasional hatred might get a bigger space in the portrait. For even if we choose to turn the blind eye, we know this is something we can relate to somehow. The parable of the prodigal son has been around for a few centuries now. To many, it shows the unfairness of greeting the ungrateful bastard that had left for a life of partying and excess, while his brother remained loyal to his father. To others, an example of forgiveness and redemption. But the thing is that the toll of time hasn’t affected this endless debate about household justice, nor the many ways to keep it fresh and sympathetic (for lack of a better word) to today’s reality.

Penned by Broadway regular Theresa Rebeck, Mad House uncovers (and stirs) the dust and mud hidden under the carpet of a dysfunctional family, whose pieces probably never fit together in the first place. A decaying house located in the middle of American nowhere, inhabited by a terminally ill father (Bill Pullman) and his mentally unstable son (David Harbour), sets the shaky foundation of a brilliant black comedy analyzing the masked hypocrisy of this sort of relationships. Enter the seemingly successful go-getter brother (Stephen Wight) and the obnoxious emasculating bitch -aka sister- (Sinéad Matthews) and the rumbling sound of thunder will burst out of the room.

Narrated through realistically raw and well-paced dialogue, the play doesn’t waste any time to pour out its savageness, presenting us with the classic figure of a failed antihero – to whom life has never given anything in return for his suffering and bad luck. Strapped to the caring of his father upon completing his stay in a psychiatric hospital, Harbour’s part is far from matching the conventional depiction of a martyr, and yet he’s more likeable, responsive and admirable than any of his counterparts – thanks to the attractiveness of his blemishes. Rebeck’s storytelling skills are risen to a higher top when it comes the character construction of this role, creating an engaging personality that appeals to anyone who’s been subject or sentitive to either (or both) society and fate’s bullying. The more we get to know him, the more it frustrates us he’s not bound to win.

© Marc Brenner

On a similar yet distanced way, Daniel (the father) wins the viewer’s love through our understanding of his erratic and (only at first) ungrateful behaviour – despite his many warts, it’s easy to see that his son stays with him as a result of true care and like for the guy, instead of imposed responsibility. A rare but unbrekable connection that toughens up as the plot progresses – and continuously proves itself stronger and stronger by each new character’s arrival. In the end, this is a piece about two tenacious men linked by blood but bonded by their mutual comprehension, stemming from their resiliance and coping with misjudgement. The profoundity dueling among their complex personalities and backstories are what make this play stand out from any others in the same genre. Instead of relying on family secrets and unapproved liaisons such as August: Orange County, there’s a Shakesperian influence hovering above – going beyond the obvious parental issue, and feeding from the Ophelianesque cautionary tale about the so-called mad sometimes being the real porters of truth.

But all of this could have just remained as plain ink and paper hadn’t it been for a production capable of channeling, reflecting and maybe even improving the quality of its source material. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the highest praises are fairly earned by the lead duo. David Harbour excels in his naturality and believability as the misfortunate Michael, exuding that eerie allure that makes an audience feel and fall for him – and even identify with. On the other side, Bill Pullman gives an exceptional performance as Daniel, enhancing the unsufferable mood which makes him amiable at the same time. As for the supporting cast, Akiya Henry plays the caring nurse Lillian with flare and grace, though the biggest mention goes to Sinéad Matthews, for her remarkable nerve-racking protrayal of Pam – to a point you can’t help but despising her every time she’s around.

The theatre has been usually described as the mirror for the man to improve himself. Certainly, the word “reflection” comes in all of their meanings with this production, as the thoughts prompted by its narrative will be dueling in your mind for the rest of the day – and probably a few more too. Despite its slightly abrupt ending (which could be easily solved by the simple use of visuals, just leaving the main character alone onstage for a few seconds as a concluding method), Mad House is no doubt a collective triumph, making it a definite must-go for anyone seeking to be both entertained and moved. Those who have seen it will surely know what I mean, the same way they know this is a play to recommend (and probably attend) more than once.

5/5 stars.

Mad House plays at London’s Ambassadors Theatre from Wednesday to Sunday until 4th September. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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