“What do I have to contribute to American playwriting?” Catherine Trieschmann mused in a 2014 New York Times interview, published not long after her play The Most Deserving opened Off-Broadway. “It’s not a comedy set in a brownstone. Other people can do that better.”
Trieschmann, in other words, doesn’t count herself among the New York glitterati, among those playwrights who’ve made a name for themselves penning comedies of manners about blasé Manhattanites sniping over cocktails and canapés. She’s more interested in the conflicts that arise between poor and middle-class Swing Staters rubbing up against people who don’t look or think the way they do. And that’s a good thing.
Originally from the South, Trieschmann has lived in the Midwest – in a small town in western Kansas – for years. And she’s developed a Midwestern knack for plainspoken dialogue and understated humor.
The five characters in One House Over, which saw its world premiere at the Milwaukee Reparatory Theater last weekend, drop witty one-liners into their conversations as well as any David Mamet character. But their speech doesn’t sound affected – we can easily imagine our own friends and neighbors gossiping over beers on their patios or bickering about parking spots in much the same way. And when the tension simmering under the surface of the story finally boils over, the characters’ emotions and behavior both feel believable.
A sense of naturalism extends to the script’s internal structure too. Trieschmann seems less interested in introducing plot twists than she does in fleshing out fully realized characters. The result is a play that sometimes feels a bit more like a series of loosely linked character studies than a taut dramedy with a clearly marked sense of rising action, climax and resolution. But each scene is grounded by enough verisimilitude and humor to charm on its own. And taken together, the scenes add up to a mostly successful, often funny, play that realistically examines the immigrant experience from a variety of angles.
The ensemble cast excels throughout. Elaine Rivkin, in particular, does an admirable job of bringing the comfortably middle-class, self-proclaimed progressive Joanne to life.
The production team also deserves a round of applause, for the remarkably realistic replica of a three-story brick bungalow dominating the Powerhouse stage. The detail of the set’s construction, from the life-sized flower boxes hanging below the windows to the cement steps leading up to the home, suggests that this is a play about real people, grappling with a very real issue that’s currently at the forefront of American discourse for a good reason.
As Mark Clements writes in his director’s letter, “One House Over attempts to ask what it means to be a good neighbor in a world of fences, borders, boundaries and closed doors.”
By the end of the second act on the evening I attended the show, audience members were ready to open their own (metaphorical) doors a little wider, to let the world in.
One House Over, which was presented as part of the John (Jack) D. Lewis New Play Development Program, runs through Mar. 25 on the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Stage. Visit the theater’s website for more information about show times and tickets, or call 414-224-9490.