Review: “Owners” (Interrobang Theatre Project)

Left to right: Christopher James Ash, Brynne Barnard, Matt Castellvi, Abbey Smith and Matt Browning in Interrobang Theatre Project’s production of OWNERS by Caryl Churchill directed by Co-Artistic Director Jeffry Stanton. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

Show: Owners

Company: Interrobang Theatre Project

Venue: Athenaeum Theater

Die Roll: 8

Control is the name of the game in Owners. Who has it, who craves it, who loses it, and who eschews it. Caryl Churchill’s rollicking black comedy, which first bowed in 1972, is still disturbingly relevant 40 years later and packs a hell of a punch.

It’s also a story about husbands and wives and expectations. Clegg hates that his wife has become more successful than he, to the point that he’s had to sell off his butchery. Marion Clegg, in the meantime, is a ruthless rising star in London real estate, always ready to pounce on the next big deal, and seems to endure Clegg rather than respect him. And it’s respect that Clegg craves. He’s of the old guard: of the firm belief that he owns Marion, who shows far too much interest in a former/soon-to-be-current-again lover (Alec).

Marion, in the meantime, is hell-bent on acquiring a house that has been subdivided into tenements and sell it whole to a new buyer, but the current tenants (Lisa and Alec) refuse to leave. She sends Worsely to weasel into their lives and buy them out. Lisa, heavily pregnant, see-saws between accepting Worsely’s bribe, thus giving Marion what she wants, and staying put in order to deny Marion.  In a wild twist, she ends up bargaining away her unborn child to Marion in order to stay in the apartment.

At the center of the women’s antipathy is Alec, Lisa’s husband. Marion is determined to win Alec away from Lisa by any means necessary, but Alec doesn’t make it easy for her.  Indeed, he has chosen to make no more choices in life: to want nothing, to simply do things as they happen, or don’t. Marion spends most of the rest of the play attempting to convince Alec to give up Lisa.

There’s no question that Marion is a powerhouse – ruthless, driven, and of unshakeable faith that she deserves to have it all. Her methods are both appalling and strangely admirable because she’s willing to risk everything to get what she wants.  And at the same time she skewers with a deadly smile, she can also strip it all away as when, late in the second act, she begs Alec to want her.

Each character in this production is well-defined, but this is a complicated script that requires as much subtlety as it does outrageousness, and what could have been some very intense and funny moments instead dissolved  into generic shrillness. Abbey Smith, especially, has a character voice that can shatter eardrums when Lisa is most upset (which is pretty much every scene). While the actress is quite good, the character is almost unintelligible through all of her crying and whining. It’s had to develop empathy for Lisa when the experience of her is so off-putting, and Lisa might be the most sympathetic character in the play.

As much of an ass as Clegg is, Matt Castellvi plays him excellently and well. He’s a Neanderthal, although that’s probably an insult to Neanderthals, and his continual inept plotting against Marion and Alec is at times chilling and yet hilarious.  Brynne Barnard also shines as Marion, turning in a marathon of a performance combining drive, passion, and ambition. In counterpoint, Matt Browning holds his own as Alec, who is exploring an existence free of want. His passivity provides a much-needed oasis from the insanity of the rest of the characters.

There is much to like about this production, but it can be a bit of a challenge to follow the intricacies of the story at times. Interrobang has produced a wildly entertaining play with rich characters that give voice to one of the best playwrights around.  It’s worth seeing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Do you need what you want, or just want it?

RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”