Westchester, New York, home to the White Plains Performing Arts Center, is a perfect place to have the world premier of a real estate drama. This is the center of the real estate-obsessed world, no matter what the Bravo Channel says, what with all its California realty reality shows. In Westchester, the northern suburbs of New York City, there are actual towns (Bronxville, I’m talking about you) that haven’t even seen a dip in house values. The first section opened in the Sunday New York Times is the real estate section, and so often there is a story of someone who throws all caution to the wind and starts over somewhere with a fixer-upper far from the madding crowd of Manhattan. That is John Marchese’s story in his memoir Renovations: A Father and Son Rebuild a House and Rediscover Each Other. So now you know how the play turns out.
Playwright Andrew Gerle has adapted the memoir into Renovations, currently playing at the White Plains Performing Arts Center. It’s a familiar tale, at least to anyone who dreams of throwing it all away, only needing a pint a day, and oh, needing that dream house too. It is a well-known story, but does it make for good theatre?
Renovations is a well-performed piece, perhaps better acted than the material deserves. Engaging drama is built on relational concepts, not the pursuit of happiness even when that happiness is to be found in a one-and-a-half-story Cape Cod near Scranton, Pennsylvania, near Mom and Dad. Here, the son, in his attempt to reconnect, does a lot of heavy lifting with little payoff from the father—well, except for a new house, that is.
In Dad, a distant figure as many first-generation immigrants appear to their children, lies the play. For John (Todd Cerveris, above right), who is leaving, at least temporarily, the glamorous life of a Brooklyn loft (more on this later), the pursuit of a fixer-upper is a chance to reconnect with his father, a plasterer of few words except “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
Dad, or Tully as John calls him, indicating a distance so great that only first names will do, can be a very unlikeable character in the face of John’s contagious enthusiasm for fixing up this old house. Lenny Wolpe (above left) has the difficult task of projecting a tractability in this character when the whole play is built around the inability to make an attachment. Renovations presents a universal pattern: the son wants approval from a withholding father. The problem is the character is withholding from the audience too. As directed by Mikhael Tara Garver, Tully is monochromatic—there’s nothing to indicate why the walls still exist between father and son; why it is still Toscanini vs. jazz even after all this time has passed since John’s unremarkably rebellious adolescence.
These pre-existing missed connections make for an uneven play, and stalemates can be static in theatre, but there is heart in the good intentions in Renovations. The actors make the most of these intentions, providing more effort than what the play provides. There’s a lot of climbing around, literally, up and down the set, up and down the emotional ladder in the white-collar man’s—no, he’s worse…he’s an artistic type who tries to rediscover his history, his family’s blue-collar, tradesman roots. Todd Cerveris, of the famous acting family (Todd’s brother is the Tony-winning Michael Cerveris) is enthusiastic, as would be the audience, naturally. We too love radiant heat.
One inescapable flaw in the work lies with the female characters or the lack thereof. That is not to say there aren’t female characters, but I wouldn’t describe them as characters, more like laminate in comparison to wide-planked hickory. John falls in love with the flooring in one house—beautiful, history-marked, hickory. Tully prefers laminate: “photos of wood floors.” These are what the female characters are like—fascmiles rather than the real thing.
The women who make brief appearances in the play, the “too cool for Scranton” girlfriend (looking very much Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan rather than a representative of the Condé Nast set), the dumb blonde realtor, the long-suffering mother, are simply caricatures, which is, of course, the author’s prerogative but they serve as comic distraction rather than a motivation or explanation for John’s identity. Actress Liz Larsen brings the same vocal timbre and accent to each character. Perhaps she feels the same way, that each female is interchangeable in its annoying lack of definition. I would argue that the play would have been better off without any female characters than having a few one-dimensional, tone-deaf ones. After all, as John Marchese says: “This is what men do.” Fine, let men do what men do. Women don’t always have to be included, even ones with Tony Award nominations like Ms. Larsen.
At its weaker moments, Renovations serves as a memory play, with John’s grandfathers, tradesmen fresh from the old country whether Italy or Ireland making sudden appearances. Mr. Cerveris tries gamely to slip into John Marchese’s toddler self during these moments, but the realism of measuring for cabinet doors doesn’t sit smoothly next to a 40-year-old man acting as a four-year-old. John’s maternal grandfather arrives via Ms. Larsen as one of John’s memories. Let’s skip that character entirely. I can appreciate the symmetry of the mother dressing as her father, but it’s not apparent what is going on, and it may strike the audience as a special appearance by a Charles Dickens character.
Ken Forman (below, far right) as Valentino Marchese (among others) does a remarkable job of standing in for contractors, family friends, etc. He is so chameleon-like, I thought the cast had more actors.
The real star of Renovations is the set pictured above, designed by Eric Southern. Standing in for the bare bones of a gutted house, it even smells of freshly planed wood. It is in the moments when the actors work with the set that the play is at its most unique and forceful. Learning how to measure, how to hammer a nail, how to wield a power screwdriver—this is primal entertainment, as anyone who has sat through This Old House knows.
In Renovations, the playwright thankfully does not succumb to sit-com sentimentality in depicting the difficult relationship between father and son. As director Mikhaek Tara Garver rightly says: There’s “nothing romantic about hard work,” but the relationship between father and son remains opaque. Then again, I think that John should have bought that one-room schoolhouse with the stained glass window and the hickory floors no matter what his father said.
Renovations runs through April 3rd at the White Plains Performing Arts Center. Photos by Annette Jolles