The two families in question, a mother and two daughters, and a father and two sons, have lived in the same apartment building now for over a decade. Vera and her daughters Twee and Momo live downstairs of Rod, Ernie’s oldest son. Ernie’s youngest son JJ moved out West to Los Angles years ago to pursue a promising career working on graphic novels.
The play begins with Rod and JJ finding out that their father was in church when he suddenly began to experience sharp chest pain and had to be admitted into the hospital. JJ decides to make the trip out to New York City where his father and brother both reside. Despite a broken relationship with his father, JJ—for reasons he can’t quite put to words—chooses to leave his life behind in LA and take this as an opportunity to move back East. Played by Jeffrey Omura, JJ has a great deal of pent-up resentment towards his father, that of a misunderstood youth, which is fitting a contrast to that of his older brother.
James Yaegashi’s Rod is portrayed as the favorite child, the one who always has his act together; the one that’s always there to pick up his brother when needed. Though it seems that Rod has got everything figured out, his relationship with his partner Henry is as of late falling apart, which in tandem with his father’s health problems is an added stressor that he would prefer to not have to deal with. Given the responsibility of being the person tasked with reuniting his broken family, Yaegashi turns in a strong and grounded performance as the well-intentioned and empathetic Rod. Rod and JJ’s father Ernie is played by Jojo Gonzalez, who performs the role well but is limited to the confines of a hospital bed for the entirety of the production.
The family of females downstairs functions in a similarly dysfunctional style, albeit with different backstories and motivations behind the characters. In this scenario, the roles are reversed, and Twee—the oldest daughter—mirrors that of JJ, in that she is more rebellious and carefree than her younger sister Momo. Tina Chilip plays Twee, the daughter that spent the last six months in India burning through a cash grant. Twee now finds herself mid-twenties and living with her mother, is stuck in limbo, directionless on where she wants to go in her life.
Meanwhile, Momo—played by Tiffany Villarin—is blossoming into a fully functioning adult. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, is already into a promising career at a young age, and can only look on with dismay at her older sister’s careless disregard for responsibility. Villarin, whose character is written with more room for growth than her sister’s, showcases a young actress who is both humorous and compassionate. Vera, Twee and Momo’s mother, played by actress Mia Katigbak, is a welcome addition to this trifecta of female performers. Katigbak brings to life Vera, a stern but loving mother who is understanding and accepting of her daughters despite their differences, and, if nothing else, wants only for the two of them to do the same for each other.
Directed by Ralph B. Peña, House Rules is an impressively staged production which utilizes space efficiently and in an ingenious way. The set design by Reid Thompson is clever and extremely fun to look at, and in a way resembles a large game of tetris. Considering that there are absolutely no set changes, and there are at least five different set locations visible at all times, the inventive use of levels is what makes each location so easily recognizable and distinguished from the next. Further, the lighting by Oliver Wason between each of the different areas on stage is highly tailored, and the use of a full spectrum of color gels isolates each location perfectly, which only adds to this already visually stimulating theatrical experience.
Featuring a talented and engaging cast as well as an inventively designed set that adds tremendous production value, House Rules would seem to have all the necessary elements of a successful production. However, though the technical and theatrical aspects of this production are undoubtedly successful, the message of this story is somehow lost along the way. Somewhere down the line, this heartfelt family story devolves into a set of characters with clichéd motivations and almost no character growth; characters who are far too often put into storylines which never receive that oh-so-satisfying payoff that differentiates an exceptional theatrical experience from the ordinary.
House Rules (through April 16, 2016)
Ma-Yi Theater Company
HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.here.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission