In “The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage,” the poet and playwright Dan O’Brien dramatizes a mystery of his past. His fictive alter ego, also named Dan O’Brien (played by Brian Henderson), is a writer in his late 30s whose parents recently, with no explanation, severed ties with him. O’Brien has a theory about the breach, and desperate to confirm or disprove it he starts reaching out to estranged siblings, tracking down relatives he hasn’t seen since he was a child and contacting private detectives and even psychics.
Tantalizing clues emerge — the name Mickey, an image of a broken palm tree — but so do more questions, and his extended family closes ranks. O’Brien might as well be trying to crack the Da Vinci code or return the One Ring to Mordor for all the help anybody will give him. Even the friendliest relatives advise him to drop the whole thing: “Nobody’s going to talk to you.” One of his sisters emails his agent, complaining that in the “memoir” he’s rumored to be writing he’s “not being truthful.”
Yes, it would be disconcerting to learn that a relative was planning to include you in his dramatis personae, but the real-life O’Briens might have felt better about the situation if they’d known that Tim Cummings would be playing them in this two-person show, now in its world premiere at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena. A virtuosic performer, Cummings transforms himself, using only his body and his voice, into all of the men and women O’Brien encounters in his lonely, exasperating journey.
Among many others, Cummings is Skip, a step-uncle, once a role model for O’Brien, now middle aged and sad; Regina, the second wife of O’Brien’s grandfather (whose New York estate is the house of the title); O’Brien’s depressive older brother, Paul, whose childhood memories throw his own into question; and finally his uncle Brian, who resurfaces decades after a mysterious disappearance.
These portraits aren’t necessarily flattering, but they aren’t lampoons either: Cummings brings to each a palpable and unique humanity. His characters may all wear the same baggy cardigan and grizzled beard, but each of them is living a full, independent life. They say things only they would say. Meeting them is continuously surprising, disarming and mystifying, and the best realized of them stick in the memory the way real people do.
Director Michael Michetti moves the action from one disconcerting tete-a-tete to the next seamlessly, at a bracing pace. Elizabeth Harper’s lighting and Tom Ontiveros’ dreamlike projections, a mixture of photographs and line drawings, economically establish time and place, leaving us free to focus on the lyrical, authentic dialogue. In every jocose remark and offhand revelation, O’Brien captures an enigma of our species: We continuously broadcast our true selves — our deepest desires, fears and convictions — to anybody willing to listen. Yet we can’t figure out one another for the life of us.
Cummings’ role is the showier of the two, but it falls to Henderson, as straight man and observer, to provide a through-line. His O’Brien is apologetic but driven: He’s essentially stalking these people. We sympathize with him anyway, so strongly that we’re willing to sit with him through however many uncomfortable encounters he must endure to get what he needs.
But like so many literary quests, O’Brien’s changes along the way, becoming more about the journey than the truth. This transformation may frustrate audience members who’ve gotten caught up in the detective story and would appreciate a little more closure. I admit to having been one such audience member. It’s even possible that I grouched in the lobby afterward about poets and their ambiguities. But after my thirst for resolution receded, I decided that the ending of “The House in Scarsdale” was more satisfying than I’d recognized. The answer isn’t ever as compelling as the journey. And on his, O’Brien discovers a companion — one he didn’t expect — not to mention a play.
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‘The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage’
Where: The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends June 4
Information: (626) 683-6883 or www.bostoncourt.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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