Review: DREAM HOU$E at Long Wharf Theatre

This dazzling production runs through April 3

By: Mar. 26, 2022

Review: DREAM HOU$E at Long Wharf Theatre

BWW Review: DREAM HOU$E at Long Wharf Theatre

By Brooks Appelbaum-March 26, 2022

Beginning with Eliana Pipes' provocative title, audiences can look forward to a remarkable play and production that combine humor, sharp satire, and thoughtful investigations into whether it's wise or necessary to hold onto one's heritage as opposed to letting it go in favor of a materially better life. As directed by the brilliant Laurie Woolery, who was also the director of IMOGEN SAYS NOTHING and EL HURACÁN at Yale Repertory Theatre, Pipes' play showcases terrific performances from its trio of women and includes stunning production elements that not only create a hilarious show within a show (more on that later), but also create troubling visual surprises that I won't describe here. In fact, I suggest that you get your tickets now, and then return to finish this review.

DREAM HOU$E is a world premiere, presented in partnership with Alliance Theatre and Baltimore Center Stage. It was developed as part of Long Wharf Theatre's 2020 New Works Festival, and for that, Long Wharf should be proud.

Pipes' story is multi-layered, and the first layer gives audiences the false impression that they are in for an all-too familiar plot: two estranged sisters meet in order to sell the family home, which has shot up in value due to neighborhood gentrification. Patricia (the excellent Renata Eastlick) has been living there with their mother and caring for her until her death. A very pregnant Julia (the more subdued but effective Darilyn Castillo) has been far from the family and the old neighborhood, teaching social studies to fifth graders.

The sisters are Latinx, so that is the first way DREAM HOU$E deviates from what white people are used to seeing onstage. Patricia and Julia have different views about what the house, with its history from generations back, is worth to each of them. Patricia, an accountant, has assimilated to the point that selling the house and pocketing the money means, to her, being able to join a country club and be afforded all the respect and privilege of the wealthy. Julia, on the other hand, is more doubtful, wondering what spirits dwell in the house and whether they should sell a home built by the hands of their great-great-great grandfather.

The second way that Pipes has slyly wrought a change on the familiar plot is to set the home sale in the context of an HGTV show ("Flip It and List It!) helmed by the hilarious Marianna McClellan as Tess, the quintessential reality show host, relentlessly smiling, relentlessly energetic, and relentless in other, more surreal respects that will not be revealed here.

Although the reality show frame gives the play an element of unexpected sparkle and suspense, Pipes knows that putting non-actors (in this case, Patricia and Julia) in front of cameras has the potential to bring out truths they would not otherwise reveal or even recognize in themselves. The playwright also knows that in Tess she has created not just a character that any actor would love to play (never a bad thing when you want your script to appeal to theatres), but also that Tess's manipulative brilliance can raise the stakes for all of us: Patricia and Julia have much more to gain-or lose-by making their conflicts "entertainment," and the audience becomes complicit in their fate in ways that are not, and should not be, always comfortable.

Meanwhile, director Woolery has cleverly added an "ensemble" that doubles as the camera crew for the home improvement show and the crew for the Long Wharf production itself. Although the play has one set, that set transforms dramatically from scene to scene, so Andrew Martinez, Moira O'Sullivan, Ezra Tozian, and Kevin Sisounthone have much to do, and they do it quickly, quietly, and in character, at times even interacting with the women onstage.

Woolery, too, has gathered together a dream design team, and the production values here are stunning. Stephanie Osin Cohen has designed a remarkable set; Haydee Zelideth has created costumes that support every mood of the women who wear them; and Jason Lynch has lit the production so that the division between the sisters' reality and the reality TV show-as well as other moments that require a special atmosphere-is perfectly clear.

Paul James Prendergast's music is perfect, and Mark Holthusen has designed projections that are beautiful, startling, and funny, depending upon the scene.

DREAM HOU$E is one of the strongest productions I've seen at Long Wharf Theatre, and among the strongest I've seen in any regional theatre in the past several years. All the elements combine to captivate the audience while giving us plenty to think about, during the play and long after. This production is not one to miss.

DREAM HOU$E continues at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven through April 3. For tickets or further information visit: Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.

Photo credit: Long Wharf Theatre