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Review - Our House: Reality Bites

If you're old enough to recall the pre-Jimmy Carter era of American comedy, when dark pieces like Jules Pfeiffer's Little Murders and Robert Altman's MASH drew humor from a sense of being emotionally anaesthetized from the ugliness of your surroundings, you may be tricked into assuming that Theresa Rebeck's Our House is a revival of some long-forgotten black comedy with an outlandish portrayal of television news that grew more realistic decades later. But this is a new piece premiering at Playwrights Horizons and despite some high moments, some clever lines and a sharp, sexy production helmed by Michael Meyer, Our House ends up seeming innocuously nostalgic and satirically toothless.

The young and attractive Jennifer (Morena Baccarin) has become one of her network's hottest stars by doubling as both a morning news anchor (easily gliding from stories of war atrocities to introducing segments on punk-inspired fall fashions) and the host of a reality series where America relishes in the manufactured tension created by a group of strangers sharing a house. Job security comes in the form of her sexual hold on Wes (Christopher Evan Welch) the smarmy, fast-talking network executive who resents the FCC's mandate that the airwaves are only free when stations provide news programs as a public service. ("Staying informed, in America, is optional.")

Meanwhile, in a seemingly unremarkable St. Louis home, four real-life roommates actually do share a tense living arrangement, mostly due to the socially inept Merv (Jeremy Strong), who is addicted to Jennifer's programs. When a newsworthy event takes place in the Midwestern home, Jennifer is the only reporter given special access to the locale, where the difference between professional ethics and a depraved indifference to human suffering becomes debatable and journalistic integrity is no match for a thirst for ratings.

The cast is solid, particularly when Welch's megalomaniacal Wes delivers a report to his board of directors on the patriotism of ignorance (Rebeck's sharpest writing) and when Baccarin's Jennifer freaks out over the on-air wardrobe choices she's handed. (Costume designer Susan Hilferty contributes fine character-defining work, particularly in the sexed-up progression of the anchor's outfits.) Strong plays Merv with the kind of exaggerated dumbness that seems fake until you see someone on TV who really acts that way and Stephen Kunken serves as an acerbic voice of reason as news exec, Stu. Derek McLane's set nicely contrasts the imposingly sparse and edgy world of the network offices with the improvised hominess of the St. Louis dwelling.

With today's audiences cynically savvy enough to question the truthfulness of anything packaged as reality, Our House may amuse, but moments that seem intended to shock with its social commentary instead feel as familiar as a comfortable old re-run.

Photo by Joan Marcus: Christopher Evan Welch and Morena Baccarin.

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From This Author Kristin Salaky