For 2 1/2 tough hours, Thomas McCormack's new play "House," at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, makes the world of Manhattan book publishing seem awfully dull indeed.
The playwright ran St. Martin's Press for much of his career. Surely he witnessed all sorts of intrigue, pettiness and publishing-house back-stabbing during that time. Surprisingly little has made it into his script.
It's a play about an old-economy universe, which is nice. It's also interested in the ethical conundrum of what you publish in the name of survival, and what's done in the name of maintaining your good name.
But as its characters natter on about who's going to replace the ailing boss, or how to handle the footnotes in an upcoming book, "House" begins to resemble an editorial meeting from which there is no polite escape.
We're in the alleged hurly-burly of Joshua Maynard Books. Times are tough. Its dying founder (William Schallert), cared for by loving daughter Sara (Stacey Martino), must choose a successor. The top candidates are Griff (Christopher Curry), who knows literature if not the latest business tactics; and the anti-Griff, Ted (Harry Hamlin), described variously by others as a "ruthless shark," a "drooling Genghis Khan" and "fatally without humanity or morality."
So it's a love-to-hate-him antagonist against his folksy, ineffectual rivals, much as another company-in-trouble play, "Other People's Money," worked it years ago. With the eavesdropping help of his assistant Sheila (Abigail Revasch, deploying constant sidelong glances), Ted snakes his way around the offices, calling the women "Tulip" or "Angel Cake," zinging his underling with lines such as: "Forget about needling me. I'm not in the market for snideness, sarcasm, rhetorical questions, or your Bryn Mawr superiority."
The premise has potential, and McCormack tosses in some promising supporting weasels, including the house conservative, Kay (Christine Estabrook, on an Eve Arden fellowship). But "House" never works up a head of steam. The exchanges are dutiful, windy and dauntingly reiterative. Scenes such as Ted's humiliation of a softhearted colleague, Grover (Neil Vipond, an easygoing standout), lack urgency and bite.
Director Steve Zuckerman's production isn't exactly high-energy, either, despite some fine performers. As Falcon Theatre founder Garry Marshall explained from the stage prior to the show, Hamlin's wife gave birth to a baby boy just days before the opening. Hamlin's performance Monday night wasn't bad, but it could've used a few hours' sleep. He glides through a role crying out for a swifter attack. His instincts are to underplay Ted's baser qualities, but it's a one-note purr of a performance--Stephen Boyd on ludes.
The sad truth: "House" was in no way ready for full production. Even so, Schallert and Vipond in particular received a warm hand at the curtain call. They're two of many reasons you wish "House" were more of a play.
* "House," Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank (across from Bob's Big Boy restaurant). Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3:30 p.m. Ends July 22. $25-$35. (818) 955-8101. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Christopher Curry: Griff
Maree Cheatham: Cora
Neil Vipond: Grover
Christine Estabrook: Kay
Abigail Revasch: Sheila
William Schallert: Josh
Stacey Martino: Sara
J. Kenneth Campbell: Bart/Ram
David Starzyk: Hope/Ross
Harry Hamlin: Ted
Written by Thomas McCormack. Directed by Steve Zuckerman. Scenic design by Yael Pardess. Costumes by Mimi Maxmen. Lighting by Rand Ryan. Sound by Kevin Goold. Original music by Donald J. Markowitz. Projections by Jenny Okun. Stage manager Jennifer Scheffer.