CONWAY — It may be Easter this weekend, but it’s Thanksgiving at M&D at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway Village, as the theater company presents the black comedy “House of Yes,” its first production at its new home in the historic playhouse.
“House of Yes,” which opened Thursday, April 18, with performances Thursday through Sunday for the next two weeks, starts from a familiar premise — an adored son and brother introducing his fiancee to his disapproving family — but playwright Wendy MacLeod uses the set-up to explore an unsettling family dynamic. The Pascals make the Addams Family look like the Cleavers.
June Desmond stars as the matriarch of the the family. She’s a cold, caustic woman and her offspring inherited these traits. Jackie-O (Melissa O’Neil), who has an unhealthy obsession with the Kennedy family, was recently released from a psychiatric hospital and refuses to take her meds because they prevent her from being able to think. She’s clearly unstable, which, when paired with her sharp intellect and cruel, acerbic wit, makes for a dangerous combination.
Jackie-O has a strong connection with her twin brother Marty (Eric Jordan) who she hasn’t seen since he moved away from Washington, D.C., for New York. At first, Marty seems different than his mother and sister, but within minutes of being around his family, he reveals that he has the same callousness inside him. Marty’s fiancee Lesly (Kaitlin Marshall) symbolizes his attempt at a normal life away from his toxic family.
Marty and Jackie-O have a younger brother Anthony (Charles Scott) who is slower, but not necessarily sweeter than his siblings. In his own way, he can be just as manipulative as the rest of the family, who underestimate him as a simpleton.
Director Mark Sickler and his creative team have created a foreboding atmosphere. The set, designed by Caramon Burrows and Tim Sappington, utilizes a series of warped picture frames that represent the twisted nature of the Pascal family.
The sound design by Robin Gabrielli is full of thunder and bluster from a hurricane raging outside the home mixed with brooding New Wave music and clips of the day JFK was assassinated. These clips add a building sense of dread to the proceedings.
The lighting design by Lori Jean Rowe emulates this ominous tone, especially following a power outage brought on by the storm.
Sickler stages the show with actors often at different levels creating a triangle that puts the characters at a distance from each other and accentuates the shifting dynamics as dark secrets are revealed. There are times when the staging does lead to actors obscuring each other, but this could vary based upon where you are situated in the audience.
The production is ideally cast, and Sickler has gotten great performances from everyone. The biggest surprise is Scott, who previously appeared in small roles in M&D productions such as “A Christmas Carol” and “Sweeney Todd.” This is his biggest role and his best work to date. Scott has some unexpectedly hilarious line readings.
There’s an awkwardness to Scott’s performance that is perfect for Anthony. This particularly holds true of his interactions with Marshall’s Lesly. Scott and Marshall’s scenes feature an uneasy banter that walks the line between cute and disconcerting.
O’Neil is a powerhouse. She’s delivers her dialogue in a quick, clipped fashion like the burst of a Tommy Gun, but instead of an array of bullets she spits acidic insults. She has an odd chemistry with Jordan that is compelling. When they’re together they bring out the worst in each other.
Jordan’s Marty is almost like two performances at once. There’s the real Marty and the facade he has put on for Lesly. How he acts with Lesly is who he thinks he wants to be. It is a delicate balance, with Jordan adding subtle shadings. He makes it unclear if Marty’s intentions with Lesly are sincere or if he’s just trying to convince himself and his family that they are.
Desmond gives Mrs. Pascal a snobbish air of superiority, especially as she attempts to orchestrate the demise of Marty and Lesly’s relationship.
Marshall is sweet and kind as Lesly, but as is true with all the characters, she’s more than she seems. In the second act, Marshall digs into some meaty dramatic scenes.
Despite some heavy and even disturbing themes, “House of Yes” is often funny, albeit in a dark vein. For those who like their comedies with an edge and don’t mind being made uncomfortable, “House of Yes” is a tremendous night of theater.
For more information or tickets, call (603) 733-5275 or go to mdplayhouse.com.