A t the end of the first act of Yale Repertory Theatre’s Owners, the stage falls silent as one character’s mother, an older woman addled by dementia, slowly and shakily makes a cup of tea. Amid the play’s barrage of quick-fire quips, it’s an uncanny, unsettling silence. The audience at the opening performance two Thursdays ago seemed uncertain whether to jump onstage to help the woman, played by Alex Trow, pour from her kettle.
This short, heartbreaking scene draws a stark contrast to the rest of the play, reminding audiences that beneath the dark, cutting humor at its surface are deep human concerns. Directed by Evan Yionoulis, real estate tycoon Marion (played by Brenda Meaney) reencounters her former lover Alec (Tommy Schrider) after a long separation. Alec, now married to Lisa (Sarah Manton, pictured right, above), has changed: he’s unwilling, or perhaps unable, to care much about anyone or anything, not even his own flat, which Marion is dead-set on purchasing. Along the way, Owners—which debuted in London in 1972 and was acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill’s first professionally produced play—contends insubordinately with the notions of acquisition and ownership, and with gender roles and marriage.
The play’s engrossing set was designed by Carmen Martinez, a current MFA candidate at the Yale School of Drama. Through loud, retro-patterned walls, Martinez calls forth early-1970s London, and the cast’s frequent interactions with mannequins—as if the dummies were living, breathing, active people—are startlingly funny. The set rotates with ease from room to room, and its metal-pipe frames and worn yet vivid wallpapering manage to reinforce both Marion’s newly gained splendor and the broken-down apartment inhabited by Alec and his family.
The degree of achievement here is copacetic with the level of ambition driving this season at Yale Rep, which Artistic Director James Bundy says is going for “diversity of voices among the writers and actors” and for balance “among the kinds of theatrical expression” it stages. Both A Streetcar Named Desire, which ran at Yale Rep from late September to early October, and Owners make their own strong statements about the intersection of social forces and individual choices. However, where Streetcar is about as tense and serious as it gets, Owners is cuttingly funny, and at times nearly slapstick, particularly regarding the antics of Worsely (Joby Earle), Marion’s protégé, who fails in his attempts to kill himself via progressively more injurious methods.
In December, the theatre takes on a story where death is certain from the outset in Dario Fo’s farce Accidental Death of an Anarchist. After that the Rep turns to magical realism, with Meg Miroshnik’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, and later to musical, with the Yale Rep-commissioned These Paper Bullets, based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and featuring songs written by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. To end the 2013-14 season, the Rep returns to pure dialogue with poet-playwright Marcus Gardley’s pre-Civil War historical drama The House that will not Stand.
How does the Rep manage to set up such a diverse lineup? It’s due in part to Yale’s Binger Center for New Theatre, “an artist-driven initiative that devotes major resources to the commissioning, development, and production of new plays and musicals” both at Yale Rep and elsewhere, according to Yale Rep’s website. In past years, the Binger Center supported the world premieres of plays ranging from Amy Herzog’s Belleville, a tragedy about the dissolution of a young couple’s life together, to an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, to POP!, Maggie-Kate Coleman and Anna K. Jacobs’s musical about Andy Warhol. This season, the Binger Center lends its support to the productions of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, The House that will not Stand and These Paper Bullets.
As for Owners, you’ve got nine days left to experience this production’s hilarious, delving inquiries, its retro-groovy setting and costumes and its characters that simultaneously love and betray. From there, it’s on to the next, and the next, and the next in this season’s dynamic, exciting lineup at Yale Rep.
Owners at Yale Repertory Theatre
1120 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm through November 16
Written by Elizabeth Weinberg. Photo © Joan Marcus, 2013, featuring Alex Trow and Sarah Manton in Owners.