The First Christian Church of Blue Springs last weekend held its seventh annual Freezin' for a Reason, in which church members camped outside in the cold to raise awareness about — and collect blankets and coats for — the homeless. Its mission and its message were clear. I wish I could say the same about Housebreaking, a muddle of a play by Jakob Holder that has, at its center, a man living on the street.
Is Housebreaking about homelessness? It's more than that, but it's also hard to know exactly what the play is ultimately saying. Directed by Bob Paisley, at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, it begins with Carmine (Forrest Attaway), who is discovered and brought home out of the cold by Chad (Bryan Moses). It's not necessarily an act of kindness — Chad isn't a nice man, and he's drunk as the play starts.
Chad shares a house with his sister, Magda (Missy Fennewald), and their father, but there's little familial warmth among them. Though Chad at one point professes love for his sister, the admission doesn't resonate. He taunts both her and Carmine, a man he's supposedly helping.
The family isn't much better off than Carmine. They're broke and owe property taxes. The play's story unfolds in the home's squalid kitchen, a place that reflects this family's unhappiness and its disregard for one another. What food there is in the refrigerator has spoiled. Debris covers the floor. Dishes tower in the sink. The new guest can forage only peanut butter and bread, beer and a bottle of whiskey.
Dad (Robert Elliott) lives in the basement, somewhat attended to by Magda and consumed by international sports. He suffers from drink or dementia, but the source and extent of his affliction are as vague as the rest of Holder's play. The avenues by which Chad, Magda and their father have arrived at their mess, and their messy place, are hinted at but glossed over.
After Carmine sheds and bags his filthy clothes, Chad decides, seemingly on a whim, to put them on and take off into the cold. Before this moment, he refused even to touch the duds. Is he just curious? ("Curiosity killed the cat" is a line that recurs in this work.) Or has he worked out a plan? A problem at his workplace is alluded to but never explained. But even if Chad can't face something at his job, this course appears sudden and capricious.
By intermission, the play's disconnects had become apparent. Holder's dialogue had done little to reveal these people. In Act 1, Housebreaking at times consists not so much of characters in conversation as it does of lines whose sound Holder perhaps fell in love with, the actors talking as much to themselves as each other. Maybe this reflects their separateness, but the words Holder has put into their mouths often bear little relevance to personality or the action taking place. (Someone sitting near me noted that if the actors shared that whiskey bottle with the audience, maybe we would enjoy the play more.) I hoped that Act 1 was merely a frustrating setup for a fuller, more satisfying tale.
But that wasn't to be. For one, Carmine's mode of speaking is different in Act 2. Who is this man? The talented Attaway makes the character's intelligence clear, but part of his evolution feels false. It's not the actor's fault; he reaches into Carmine and finds a center, and his performance anchors a confusing work.
Accomplished actor Elliott also manages to make the most of his role. He brings liveliness, humor and pathos to the mess of a father in the basement.
Moses, the Living Room's associate artistic director, recently did very good work as Guy in Some Girl(s), but his Chad is an annoyance whose actions make little sense. That may be how the character is written, but the portrayal wears thin. Fennewald's Magda is also unlikable. There's no love lost between her and her brother, and we'll never know why. This family, these individuals, remain elusive, ambiguous and remote, yet they are key to the intent of this story.
Curiosity may have taken one of the cat's nine lives, but "satisfaction brought him back," Carmine says, repeating an old cliché. This play leaves a lot to be curious about over its two hours, but it offers no satisfaction.