Laurel Mill Playhouse’s current run of “House,” a fresh comedy written by emerging playwright Daniel Johnston and produced by Maureen Rogers, brings vibrant new performance art to Main Street in a pastiche of the reality TV show, “Survivor.”
The play premiered under Johnston’s direction at the Studio Theatre of Howard Community College Arts Collective’s Horowitz Center in March 2016. Susan Brall, who reviewed that production for DC Metro Theatre Arts, was so impressed with Johnston’s script that she approached Rogers at the Playhouse and offered to direct the current production.
In her director’s notes, Brall writes that she is not a follower of reality television but was drawn in and enlightened by the characters as she watched the play unfold. The Studio Theatre show opened, she writes, about the “time that we began to realize we might soon have the star of a reality show running our country.”
Rife with edgy dialogue that intensifies as the plot progresses, this show — as directed by Brall (with assistance from Lori Bruun) and stage managed by Joy Pace (Johnston is credited as playwright and costume stylist) — offers witty, apolitical entertainment to mature audiences of an age to appreciate Johnston’s risqué humor.
The set, designed by Brall’s husband, Aron, is as functional as it is lovely. An angled white sofa stage right, an assortment of matching black stools and a raised platform housing a bed stage left create excellent sight lines set against shades of institutional gray in the wall flats.
Johnston’s modern and trendy costumes are spot on, of course — particularly the contest hosts’, whose evening attire in dark gray matches each other and their names. (Pearl Stone prominently wears pearls and Onyx Stone a tuxedo with tails and a top hat.)
And Jen Sizer’s excellent hair and makeup design as she portrays the disheveled Micky is a standout.
The lights rise on Melita Bell and Reginald Garçon as Pearl and Onyx just prior to the contestants making their first ensemble appearance. The Stones announce that to “stay on top,” each contestant must excel in sociability, intelligence and physical endurance.
The competition begins and the rules are revealed — the contestants must outwit, outlast, outplay and vote to eliminate each other, one by one, until only two remain. The vote to determine which of the semi-finalists will take home the $1,000,000 prize will be cast by a jury comprised of the losers.
Add some inevitable sexual attractions and shifting alliances forged behind closed doors and the characters emerge as sharp as tacks.
William Mekelburg as cold and calculating Liston proves a master of manipulation. Kikey Ayodeji’s sweet Christine almost maintains her endearing innocence until the final vote; Joelle Denise as tough Andrea is bold, brassy and a laugh catcher; Maia Krapcho rocks her role as long-in-the-tooth, calculating Elaine; Deigo Esmolo brings wonderful energy to the role of “Yo!” lover-boy Carlos; and Shenochia Jordan as Lucy makes a delightfully air-headed southern belle.
Chris Sisson as Peter is savvy, self-contained and calculating. Sizer delivers an outstanding performance as the naive Micky, and Caleb Uzcategui as Michael is wonderfully deep and brooding.
As the Stones, Garçon and Bell find many moments to own the spotlight, creating as compelling energy together as the lovers Andrea and Carlos (Denise and Esmolo) do.
On Jan. 12, the actress who plays Fatima, Darwina Metayer, was ill. Mary Liberto (originally cast as associate producer and stagehand) did an admirable job of stepping up to her role, as Johnston stepped in for Liberto and teamed with Shawn Fournier (cameraman and stagehand) to perform some very amusing physical shtick near play’s end. Not only did the show go on, it went on beautifully.
Skillfully staged, directed and performed, “House” does run a bit long; audience members should be prepared to settle in for a good two and a half hours.
Brall dedicates “House” at Laurel Mill Playhouse to DC Metro Theater Arts founder Joel Markowitz, who sent her to review the show at Studio Theatre. Well-loved by the surrounding theater community, Markowitz passed away last November.
"House" continues weekends through Jan. 21, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee performances on Jan. 21 at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. Tickets are $20. Students ages 16-18, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $15. Buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org.