The Gingerbread House
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
April 17, 2009
Mark Schultz's morality play The Gingerbread House, presented by the stageFARM, is a devilish comedy so brimstone-black as to make Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm's "Hansel and Gretel" (to which the play alludes) sound like a limerick by Pat Boone. In the Grimms' tale, two abandoned children find their way through the woods to a house made of sugar and molasses; possessed of a desperate appetite, they are enticed and imprisoned by a tricksome hag who intends to devour them whole. An extrapolation of this classic story, The Gingerbread House is a riotous take on upwardly-mobile hedonism that never loses its grasp of consequence or causality.
Stacey and Brian are a couple that can no longer quite be called young. The responsibilities of raising two children—a chipper son and a tiny, cherubic daughter—have left them resentful and unfulfilled. Were it not for the offsprung albatrosses wrapped around their necks, they presume life would be vibrant and hopeful; Stacey would no longer schlep from her tedious job at a travel agency to Little League games, and Brian could focus on executive combat with the young bucks coming up the ranks in his office (the specifics of Brian's career are obscured by the wonderful vagaries of Office-ese, including wistful dreams of getting into "The Club"). Under the wooing guidance of Marco, Brian's slick-as-snake-oil friend, Stacey and Brian hit on the cure for their (soon-to-be-no-longer) thirtysomething woes: They'll sell their kids to Albanian buyers.
That Faustian pitch comes within the first ten seconds of The Gingerbread House, and the machinations that follow place avarice and gluttony—for fiscal dominance, sex, and self-aggrandizement—centerstage. However, the plight of the sticky-fingered children in the Grimms' metaphor has been here reconceived as that of the abandoning parents; Stacey and Brian, ravenous for pleasure and comfort, are lured into Marco's escalating extortions and abuses. A fantastic metaphor for our current times—as more and more Americans discover themselves trapped in gingerbread homes built on years of easy credit and expedient gratification—Stacey and Brian ultimately find themselves belonging to Marco. Of course, as every child knows, Hansel and Gretel must confront the cannibalistic hag responsible for their sugared rendition, and when The Gingerbread House turns, it does so on a nasty, satisfyingly macabre dime.
Playwright Schultz has wrought one hell of a yarn. The deductive extremes that Schultz fearlessly explores elevate The Gingerbread House above mere dark comedy (or twisted, moribund sermonizing on the wages of sin and the power of evil). The Gingerbread House spins and hisses like a viper in a pit, unpredictably striking with precision and an indifference to tender sensibilities. Schultz has created unforgettable characters with unforgivable behavior, and thus crafted a play incapable of categorizing; I don't know where you'd find The Gingerbread House in a playscript library cataloged by genre, unless there was a shelf for Damn Good Plays.
Sarah Paulson and Jason Butler Harner are superb as the compromising couple. Though Harner arguably has the tougher of the two roles—Brian's ethical morass is incomparably deeper than Stacey's, who is continually tugged by conscience and rationalization—both offer knock-out performances. The comedic suffering that infuses Stacey and Brian's codependence at the top of the show all but commands tittering empathy; roughly a hundred minutes latter, these wounded creatures deserve worse than pillory, yet Paulson and Harner's adherence to the truth of desire and inevitability keep the audience's enthrall, even if they've left stomachs churning.
As the metaphoric witch, Marco, Bobby Cannavale almost steals the show from his heavy-lifting costars. Marco appears in perhaps a third of The Gingerbread House, and that's for the best: His tasty sleaze and greasy charm would otherwise overwhelm, tilting the play in favor of a character debauched enough to broker children, debase husbands, and receive oral pleasure from a disconsolate mother while sampling brie. Cannavale's dangerous sex appeal and menacing intelligence serve the role well; one wants not to meet him by a crossroads at night, if only because one might not be able to resist the possibilities of such an encounter.
The cast is rounded out by Jackie Hoffman and Ben Rappaport. Rappaport, as a wily subordinate, duly reflects the covetous arrogance permeating Stacey's world; though his appearance in The Gingerbread House is brief, Rappaport offers an essential contribution. As a would-be world traveler of modest aspirations, Hoffman is delightfully beleaguered and hilariously salty; her final moments are the cherry atop Schultz's infectious treat.
The Albanian-bound children, Curtis and Maggie, are portrayed in life-size video projections by L.J. and Claire Foley (with Curtis's voice-over narration by Charlie Kilgore). Video designer Richard "Dickie" DiBella and sound designer Zane Birdwell deserve special recognition for bringing the children to metaphoric life, as their presence offers far more than counterpoint; the virtual interaction of Stacey with her abandoned children has continued to haunt me in the days since seeing The Gingerbread House, and even as I write this my stomach knots and skin tingles.
Days before press showings, director Evan Cabnet replaced Alex Kilgore (current artistic director of the stageFARM) at the helm of The Gingerbread House. With no public explanation for the change, some wondered what backstage dramas might have transpired, and if their presence would be detected in the quality of the production set to open. Those musings can be sealed up, locked away, and shipped into Albanian exile: Cabnet's direction is surefooted and dynamic, with compelling stage pictures that continually reinvent the use of the stageFARM's white, womb-like set. The actors' rhythms and tumbling patter suggest careful consideration and a nuanced ear, and the performances Cabnet draws from his ensemble are of outstanding caliber. Doubtless, Cabnet and Kilgore each deserve praise. Whatever may have happened behind the scenes, what happens onstage is outstanding.
Though it would be unfair to reveal many more of The Gingerbread House's twists and turns, the play contains intense scenes and graphic language; parents should leave the kids with a (trusted) babysitter. The Gingerbread House is a vicious comedy in the ranks of the best off-Broadway theatre. Upon leaving the theatre, as I stepped into a street bustling with chatty patrons, already I dared my busted gut and uneasy appetite for another round of the stageFARM's delightful confection.