Theresa Rebeck’s play opens as a dysfunctional father-son drama with dark laughs. The father is terminally ill, sucking on an oxygen cylinder, though still able to hurl accusations of abuse at his son and carer (“You’re poisoning me”).
It quickly transpires that the ailing Daniel (Bill Pullman) is a tyrant patriarch, now vulnerable but no less mean, and refusing to face up to his imminent death even as his children convene around him. Michael (David Harbour) is the family’s black sheep, looking after the father whose cruelties partly led him to be admitted to a “loony bin”.
It is a good setup for emotional sparks to fly. Under the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the first half seems like a particularly savage episode of Frasier, especially when the slightly square son, Nedward (Stephen Wight) and hospice nurse Lillian (Akiya Henry) enter the fray. There are some sharp lines in Rebeck’s script, though the serrated humour is not as blistering as it strives to be.
Mad House loses the threads of its first half to turn into a different kind of family psychodrama that could easily be another play, with big pivots in mood and focus. With Daniel mostly offstage, it loses the humour and revolves around sibling conflict, and introduces some creaking plot turns around greed and inheritance.
Daniel is a thoroughly dislikable father who jokes about hitting his late wife and taunts Michael about his mental health; there is a Trump-like tone to his anti-trans jibes and talk about fake news. Pullman does all he can with the part but his character never develops, repeating the same narrow repertoire of putdowns along with lines about beer, cigarettes and money. We do not get the necessary reckoning between the father and children for his motivations to be understood: he dislikes and disparages everyone, but why? And what is his driving force?
Michael, the angry outcast son, is the most full-bodied and compelling character so this becomes Harbour’s play, not Pullman’s. He draws laughs and is flamboyant but there is also pathos capturing the tragedy of his limited life too. In a play with too many half-drawn, derivative characters, he is the one for whom we end up caring.
Too much is thrown in without enough depth or structural coherence; there are echoes of King Lear as Daniel uses threats of disinheritance to keep his three children in line, even as two – Nedward and Pam (Sinéad Matthews) – scheme for the lucrative deeds of his house. Pam is particularly flat in her villainy, which seems like a motor for the plot.
That is not to say that this play does not have rich and gripping moments: there is good insight into unresolved hurt in sibling relationships, especially the way Michael’s mental health issues have overshadowed Pam and Nedward’s early lives. It also captures the way in which adults regress into their childhood selves, scrapping over who will sleep in which bedroom, and becoming bullies or allies. Performances are magnificent across the board, especially in the affection that rises between Lillian and Michael, and the relationship between the brothers, which deepens to almost tenderness.
It is ultimately a play with bits of brilliance, aspiring for the power and reach of an Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill drama but falling – heroically – short.