Theater Review: “House of Gold” @ Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Parts of House of Gold are thrillingly innovative, so it’s disheartening when its dialogue and thematic content remain hollow. Director Sarah Benson created an ambitious set, one that finds new ways to present on-stage action, and on this level it’s easy to give the play a hearty recommendation. But the characters have one too many screws loose and their obsessions are too skewed, so they lose personalities and become unwanted caricatures. I suspect this approach is deliberate. Playwright Gregory S. Moss clearly has a bone to pick with childhood beauty pageants, an aspect of Americana that was a hot-button issue over a decade ago. Some actors fill their roles nicely, but with a dearth of chemistry, it gets uncomfortable when supposedly funny lines don’t even elicit a chuckle.

While billed as The Girl (Kaaron Briscoe), other characters refer to the would-be beauty pageant star as JonBenét Ramsey. Her father (Michael Russotto) and mother (Emily Townley) use her as a vessel for their neuroses, but JonBenét has little talent or desire for pageantry; she’s more interested in acting her age and having fun. She soon finds a companion in Jasper (Randy Blair), a fat white kid who has delusions of being a black heavyweight boxer. By the way, the actress playing JonBenét is a young black woman, and while all the characters are white, there are few direct references to her race. Two other men from opposite sides of the law take further interest in JonBenét: a detective (Mitchell Hebert) who works to solve her case, and local pedophile Joseph M Lonely Jr. (James Flanagan), who invites the girl into his creepy basement, where discussion of candy quickly escalates into unwholesome innuendos.

Even before the play starts, it’s apparent that Benson has unique ideas about set design. While obnoxiously cheerful techno blares in the background, a projector illuminates a loop of JonBenét making a half-turn toward the camera. The screen rolls off stage and we see the set in its entirety: three levels of a house with off-putting color reminiscent of Tim Burton. There’s also a helpful projection that lists each scene title in friendly Helvetica font. Of the three levels, the basement makes the strongest impression. Except for a small window, it’s closed off to the audience, so when Joseph Lonely takes JonBenét inside, a cameraman films the action while the audience watches on the projector. Such a concept is certainly a new way to view theater, and the voyeuristic camerawork adds creepy energy to a scene already palpable with tension. Too bad no other scene is brimming with such inventiveness.

Moss’s script is filled with impressionistic symbolism, so the play seems like  a collection of bizarre vignettes that are bereft of any dramatic weight. When characters treat JonBenét cruelly, which is often, there is little impact because the play’s exaggeration eliminates malice from their actions. Lengthy monologues meander with lyrical significance, yet their content does not provide a context for what happens.  Sure, there are several uncomfortable metaphors, such as the time where the detective pulls jelly-mold organs out of still-breathing JonBenét, but the heavy-handedness makes the scene drag. There are also subplots that never go anywhere. A trio of bullies taunt Jasper, and while their retro hair is amusing, it’s never clear how they relate to the central story (as Jasper, Randy Blair’s frequent laugh lines fall noticeably flat). Eventually, House of Gold ends with an onslaught of jarring noise and violence, but this attempt at shock feels as if Moss is grasping at ways to push the audience toward catharsis. For a play that begins with a long period of meaningless silence, such a culmination is too little, too late. Moss and Benson misstepped with the play’s  first minute and never quite recovered.

Just last week I sang the praises of  the film Enter the Void, which succeeds for the exact reason that House of Gold does not. Both do employ innovative visuals to redefine the limits of their respective mediums. However, while Enter the Void’s psychedelic assault negates the need for character development, House of Gold seems to think that similarly disproportionate attention will translate to the stage.  Plays succeed or fail based upon the strength of their writing and cast, and too many actors never grasp Moss’s meaning. Amidst the clunky scenes, only James Flanagan and Kaaron Briscoe consistently find the right tone for the material. As JonBenét, Briscoe convincingly conveys a child’s innocent desires, and her constant wig-tugging hints at the discomfort with her role as a beauty pageant star.  It’s commendable to see her and the others try something new and daring. Despite numerous unfortunate misfires, there’s enough strong material here to make me eager to see what the cast and production team try next.