MET’s ‘Housebreaking’ is dark, comical and disturbing

Even the most detailed synopsis of “Housebreaking” would fail to convey the true nature of the play.

Jakob Holder’s meditation on family relationships and identity certainly takes the audience on a journey and viewers can never really predict the twists and turns in this piece. The play is fascinating, often funny and ultimately unsettling.

The set-up is deceptively simple: Chad, a guy who finds himself adrift in his mid 30s, comes home drunk one night, bringing with him a homeless man named Carmine. He tells Carmine to help himself to any food or drink he can find and invites him to take a hot shower and spend the night. Chad seems driven by a voyeuristic interest in the filth-encrusted drifter, whom he introduces to his kid sister, Magda as “Uncle Carmine.”

Magda didn’t know she ever had an Uncle Carmine, but the idea takes hold and she begins to vaguely recall gifts she may have received from her fictional uncle in early childhood. Dad, who seems to be losing control of his memory, emerges from the basement, where he spends most of his time watching televised international soccer matches.

Chad is clearly experiencing a crisis of spirit and identity and before the end of Act 1 he has donned Carmine’s street clothes and forced himself out into the raw world of the streets. Two year elapse during intermission, and when Chad returns he finds that Carmine has usurped his place and taken his name – and seems to share a sexual relationship with Magda.

Holder is a precise writer and this play is full of elliptical allusions to events that are never discussed explicitly. The contents of a letter are significant but never read aloud. Dad seems to be mourning his late wife but also tormented by guilt and remorse about the never-described circumstance of her death. How Carmine became homeless remains ambiguous. Offstage characters figure into the story. Detailed but seemingly contradictory accounts of offstage events are related vividly.

Part of the joke is the transformation that occurs in the family home. The play is set entirely in the kitchen and the house has been badly neglected. “Trashed out” would not be an overstatement. After intermission, Carmine (now calling himself Chad) has become a responsible homeowner and has spruced the place up significantly with carpentry skills. He has brought order to chaos, at least on the surface.

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production, directed by Bob Paisley, showcases four committed performances. The actors become the play’s agents and the performances, perhaps more than the material, seize the viewer’s imagination. The first act is dominated by Forrest Attaway’s nuanced, mesmerizing take on Carmine. Attaway lets us see the character’s intelligence without tipping his hand. He allows us to see what Chad, played by Bryan Moses, can’t. Moses is effective, although his performance isn’t always as clear as it needs to be.

In the second act Melissa Fennewald as Magda takes control of much of the action. The first-act Magda seems angry but vulnerable. The second-act version is aggressive and vindictive. Fennewald demonstrates formidable comedic gifts. Robert Elliott’s performance as Dad is broadly comic but ultimately becomes a sobering portrait of a man trying to come to terms with a half-imagined past that he’d prefer to forget. Elliott knows how to fill up a room and there are moments when his performance acquires epic stature.

There’s nothing unusual about dysfunctional families in American theater, but you’ve never seen one quite as odd as this one. Unlike many family plays, this one isn’t particularly concerned with how much people love each other – or if they love each other at all. Rather, it depicts characters who, in one way or another, have lost their moorings. They aren’t sure who they are. And they don’t have anyone to lean on.

In the end Holder suggests that each of us is alone in the universe. In this play identity is a construct – and as transitory as a wisp of smoke.