By A. Rey Pamatmat
Directed by Ralph B. Peña
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Casino rule number one: the house always wins! That is certainly the case in Vera’s (Mia Katigbak) house where her daughters Twee (Tina Chilip) and Momo (Tiffany Villarin) are encouraged to abide by their mother’s rules whether they are playing Gin Rummy, Mahjong, Monopoly, or the game of life. And it is life’s game – the vicissitudes of human existence – that take center stage at HERE during Ma-Yi Theater Company’s New York premiere of A. Rey Pamatmat’s “House Rules.”
Mr. Pamatmat’s new play – much like Amy Tan’s works – tackles the struggle between tradition and contemporary manners. Here, the players are two Filipino-American families that are struggling with the conflict of values, the expectations of parents and their second-generation children, and the sometimes stifling value system of the majority culture. Vera – matriarch of one of the families – left her sisters in the Philippines to start a new life in the United States. She raised her daughters to “fit in” to the majority white culture and only spoke to them in English refusing to even teach them Tagalog. Twee, a professional photographer, seems to lack the work ethic of her parents while Momo exemplifies that ethic and becomes a physician.
Ernie (Jojo Gonzalez) – the failed patriarch of the second family – lies in a hospital bed after collapsing at church. One of his sons Rod (James Yaegashi) is a physician; the other JJ (Jeffrey Omura) is a successful artist suffering a premature mid-life crisis who moves into Rod’s apartment under the guise of having been fired from his well-paying job. Rob and JJ live upstairs from Vera and her daughters and the two families spend time together on “game nights” and other occasions. Shortly after Rod’s father is hospitalized, Rod’s fiancé Henry (Conrad Schott) decides he is incapable of being a good helpmate to Rod and leaves him. Henry is the only non-Filipino character in “House Rules” and perhaps serves as the challenging foil to the cultural integrity so carefully guarded by the two Filipino families ultimately facing the unknown without Vera and (soon) Ernie.
All of the play’s characters are challenged to re-examine their unique house rules, the ideas and behaviors that – like those of their parents – have consistently trumped all opposition to their life choices. Too often, the conflicts of the characters – each believable and significant – collude to derail the forward progression of the play. There are conflicts between generations, between cultures, between siblings, and a myriad of internal conflicts – all begging for the attention of the audience and vying for supremacy. The important shift in values and the new rules required are clouded over by loud screaming and repetitive scenes that add nothing to the rising or falling action of the play.
This internal struggle in the script is perhaps the essential challenge of “House Rules.” Mr. Pamatmat has taken on a great deal in his new play and the conglomerate of plots and sub-plots prevents the satisfying resolution of any of them. The audience never really gets to know the characters on any deep level and that makes it difficult to connect with them and care for them as profoundly as might be desired to truly understand and commiserate with their problems. This is not the fault of the ensemble cast members that genuinely seem to be invested in their characters’ development. Unfortunately, Mr. Peña’s frenetic direction sacrifices depth for surface histrionics. And some of his directorial choices leave scenes flat and less interesting than the script requires. One example is the JJ’s monologue while sharing his brother’s couch with his new squeeze Twee.
Explaining his meltdown, JJ shares, “Collapse. I collapsed. And I keep on collapsing. Every day I realize more and more that all the things I believe define me are paper thin illusions. So thin that looking at them is enough to make them dissolve.” JJ’s self-therapeutic confession, under Mr. Peña’s direction, lacks energy and commitment and unfortunately comes across as less than sincere and less than a turning point in JJ’s life. On the other hand, Mia Katigbak thrives under the same direction and delivers her performance as Vera with rock-solid authenticity. Her Vera is not only the matriarch of one of the families; she is also the spiritual and emotional anchor of the play.
As a trope for the universal decisions about self-discovery, self-awareness, and self-fulfillment, “House Rules” is a worthwhile exercise in making decisions about what matters in life and what is worth fighting for and should be seen to enjoy the craft of the actors as they grapple with their characters’ decision-making and to marvel at Reid Thompson’s expansive set that splendidly sprawls over the entire playing area of HERE’s Mainstage Theatre – itself a fitting trope for the unsuppressed nature of cultural conflict and resolution.