REVIEW: 'House of Yes' is funny, dark tale

Trish Morgan
Special to the News Tribune
Cast members of “The House of Yes” at the manor on Thanksgiving night as a hurricane begins to take effect: Kimberli Rowley (seated), John Barker, Seth Thompson, Caitlin Cremins and Nicole Halmos.

There are times that I attend a local theatre production without knowing the synopsis of the play. In fact, I actually prefer it that way. Such was the case of Cumberland Theatre's (CT) "The House of Yes.”

I have to give props to CT for selecting the most interesting and "new to our community" kind of productions. Their artistic directors take great care in choosing shows that will tap into great character study, and I'm sure that many hours of decision-making go into selecting the casts for each.

This is where it all starts, I imagine. Who will be best suited to play the matriarch of a dark and dysfunctional family? Who can pull off a physically demanding role in that production? Who can take on a manipulative, "fresh out of the psychiatric hospital" uncomfortable character with many secrets? This cast, that's who!

Performed on one set at the family manor on a scary, stormy night, this dark comedy follows the Pascals, a wealthy family in McLean Virginia, and the conflict that ensues after the oldest son Marty returns home on Thanksgiving and surprises the family with news that he is engaged.

There is a strange connection between Marty, his twin sister Jackie-O (who was recently released from a psychiatric hospital), the Kennedy assassination and their missing father, and the imminent hurricane on its way to their home - which just happens to be next door to the Kennedy compound.

"The House of Yes" took me by surprise at the very beginning, and at times, made me squirm a little in my seat. The crass satire of Mama, played by Nicole Halmos, alternated with dark comedy - another role mastered by Halmos. She just takes charge of the stage, and although her role was not as large, let's say, like playing the lead in "Gypsy,” her Mama was cynically snide, controlling and in charge of this "family .” Not a kind of family I know, and not one I WANT to know. Mama - your family is a mess, and you made them that way. You are evil. Kudos, Nicole.

Director Jennifer Clark demonstrated her leadership chops by creating this little corner of the world outside of Washington, D.C., and she was able to bring out each character's flaws and lopsided way of living and thinking.

For example, with Caitlin Cremins' role of Lesly, she was quiet and demure, and so in love with her fiance Marty. This was the first time she was going to meet her fiance's family. She had no idea of what was to come when Mama made it clear she was not wanted. She then would have the chance to meet Jackie-O, and she knew nothing about why Jackie-O called herself that, nor did she know the big family secrets that would be outed. Again, Caitlin studied her character, and played sweet and nice, and then sultry and sexy. Not a stretch at all for an experienced actor. I hope Caitlin appears again on stage at CT; she was incredible.

Mama's family, as it turns out, is sick as they come. They lie, cheat, carry secrets, manipulate and become rather violent. Mama encourages it, enables it, covers it - and they all know they can get away with murder.

Jackie-O, who is jealous of Lesly and Marty, shows it from the very start. This character is one of Kimberli Rowley's best. I have seen Kimberli perform in many different plays and musicals, but Jackie-O did it for me. Crazy, manipulative, smart, sneaky, suggestive, "do whatever I want, who cares.” I found Kimberli mesmerizing as this poor, lovesick child in a woman's body as Jackie-O. In fact, before the show began, while I was seated at the theatre, I overheard three people talking about how magnificent Kimberli was in this play. One of them said, "just wow.” I didn't let that sway any opinion I might have of her performance, however. Truth is, though, she was "just wow"!

But, you'll have to come see this production yourself to see what Mama has done to destroy any self respect this family may have had. It's chilling to see the evil workings of warped minds.To them, it's all a normal way of life.To me, no. There is nothing normal at this manor house.

The other characters in this superb ensemble cast are John Barker as Anthony, and Seth Thompson - who plays Marty. Both of these actors brought a level of unexpected craziness to the play. They keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what they will do next. Both are seasoned actors, and when an audience feels for them, cares for them - you know an actor has done his job well.

Do we laugh at the impolite, crass, rude jokes? Do we laugh even though the actions make us uncomfortable? Why, of course. We laugh, and then in the next moment, we are seized with taboo subject matter and crude characters who like to pretend they are special and important.

And, do we laugh again? Why, yes! We have to laugh. And, we did laugh. Not belly laughs or guffaws, but laughs at situations we don't see or hear about often, or at all. And, when we laugh, we might look out of the corner of our eyes to make sure it was okay to laugh at such dysfunction and travesty of what their lives had become.

The creative team also includes Rhett Wolford (set and sound design), Matthew Georgeson (lighting design), Hayden Kline (stage manager) and Ebony Gennes (assistant stage manager).

"The House of Yes" continues Friday-Sunday, with final curtain on May 23. Show times are Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m. For more information and cost of tickets, please visit www.cumberlandtheatre.com, or call 301-759-4990 for reservations.

In accordance with COVID-19 state regulation masks are required for all patrons, and temperature checks will be conducted at the door. CT staff reserves the right to alter ticket reservations to accommodate social distancing. "The House of Yes" contains strong language, sexual situations and violence. It is not suitable for younger audiences.

The 2021 season has been dedicated to the memory of Iris Eustace Halmos, Patron of the Arts. March 24, 1937-May 9, 2020. "Mothers hold their children's hands for a short while...but their hearts forever."