THEATER | Joking Envelope’s “Safe as Houses”: Buyer beware

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Safe as Houses is like a Michael Bay movie: it’s big, it’s intense, it’s often impressive, there’s a lot of screaming, and it doesn’t much seem to matter at any given moment what happens next.

It’s an ambitious production for Joking Envelope to stage as its first show not penned by Joseph Scrimshaw (the new company’s co-founder, with his wife Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw), and it’s easy to see why writer/director Tom Poole appealed to Scrimshaw as a collaborator. Like Scrimshaw’s, Poole’s writing mixes broad humor and highflown intellectual references. (Kant and Hegel aren’t mentioned by name in Safe as Houses, but the debate between realism and idealism is discussed in some detail.) Unfortunately, Poole’s script does not evince Scrimshaw’s knack for tight plotting and structural coherence.

safe as houses, presented through april 17 at the minneapolis theatre garage. for tickets ($20) and information, see jokingenvelope.com

The play concerns Charles “David” Glenfiddich (Chris Carlson), a real estate agent holding an open house for a bungalow that’s been on the market for three years. Glenfiddich is lousy at his job, but it’s not entirely his fault that the property hasn’t sold: it’s a haunted death trap that inspires a horrific feeling of despair in anyone who steps beyond the living room. On this particular day, however, Glenfiddich finds himself fielding two bids on the property: one from a proctologist named Darla (Mo Perry), and one from a young couple of actors (Anna Sundberg and Scrimshaw) who may or may not be acting the parts of “motivated buyers.”

Broadly, the arc of the play follows Glenfiddich from being a bored and washed-up salesman to being stricken with existential horror; his would-be buyers turn out to be hiding as many secrets as the house he’s trying to unload on them. Each actor has powerful moments, but the production overall feels unhinged. Perry, for example, is great—but she’s great as three different Darlas, among whom Poole can’t seem to decide. There’s the cynical, sarcastic Darla who mocks Glenfiddich; there’s the freaked-out Darla who’s justifiably afraid of the house; and there’s the creepy Darla who finds the house to be weirdly delightful. The three Darlas represent three different takes on the material—satirical comedy, suspense, and macabre horror—and the frequent shifts in tone, perhaps meant to be unsettling, are frustrating.

When Scrimshaw and Sundberg enter midway through the first of two long acts (with an intermission, the play runs almost two and a half hours), it’s as though they’re walking in from a Joseph Scrimshaw play. Scrimshaw’s loser-with-a-libido is reminiscent of his turn as The Dave in Fat Man Crying, and Sundberg plays her pregnant-and-surly role in broad caricature. In the show’s best scene, Perry massages Scrimshaw’s ego to encourage his clumsy seduction attempts; the two have about as much romantic chemistry as Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes, and the scenario has an amusingly ridiculous quality.

The amusement largely ends in the second act, though, as a placid Perry holds forth on fate and philosophy to Carlson, who becomes alarmingly agitated at the prospect of losing his sale—despite his character having started the act with an air of devil-may-care resignation after suffering a completely random offstage personal tragedy during intermission. By the time the play ends, its concluding developments seem both inevitable and anti-climactic.

Heard at multiple points in the production is the music of Peter Wolf Crier, which has a haunting, evocative quality suggesting that which the play seems to be aiming, unsuccessfully, to achive.