You’d think that a real estate agent’s attempts to close a deal with a house-for-sale’s sole prospective buyer would be slight stuff for a ninety-minute two-character play. Not so, if the play in question is Shem Bitterman’s Open House and the dueling protagonists brought to life by L.A. stage stars Robert Cicchini and Eve Gordon.

Bitterman, author of 2011’s high tension cat-and-mouse thriller A Death In Colombia (also expertly directed by Steve Zuckerman at the Skylight Theatre), starts things off slowly, perhaps a bit too slowly in the final analysis, though there is method to the series of short scenes that introduce us to 40something newbie realtor Chuck Baker.

OpenHouse We spend the first ten or so minutes of Open House with Chuck, all by his lonesome in the near-bare living room of the Beverly Center-adjacent house he’s hoping to sell. He reads the L.A. Times sports section. Blackout. He laughs at the funnies. Blackout. He tries his hand at the crossword. Blackout. He listens to a motivational tape about how to close a sale. Blackout. He fiddles with a pack of Marlboro Reds. Blackout. His back starts to itch and he uses a door frame to scratch it. Blackout. A car pulls into the driveway, then backs up and drives away. Blackout.

Though half as many of these short scenes would probably do the trick equally well, Bitterman’s aim is clear: To establish that this house is, for whatever reason, not attracting potential buyers; that Chuck seems new at the real estate game, a bit curious at his age; and that should a would-be house purchaser happen to show up at long last, Chuck will surely not let slip his one-and-only chance to sell this house, to close this deal.

O_H_0662-copy Finally someone does show up, the someone turning out to be 40something Martha Tucker, drably dressed and coiffed and utterly uninterested in this house built back in the era when a single bathroom sufficed regardless of family size or number of bedrooms.

Martha’s lack of interest is so palpable that even an expert realtor might choose to give up regardless of how long he’s been waiting for a potential buyer to arrive. But not Chuck, who practically begs Martha to sign the guest book with assurances that she won’t be called.

Not surprisingly, Chuck does call her back and leave a message on her voice mail: This house is perfect for you. I can “see” you in this house. Won’t you just give it another look-see? And here’s my phone number. Let me repeat it. And repeat it again. And I’ve got call-forwarding, so no matter when you call, I’ll be paged.

Chuck leaves at least three of these messages, making it no wonder that when Martha shows up once again, it’s more to berate the realtor for pestering her than anything else.

Chuck, however, sees Martha’s return as being given a second chance at closing … and playwright Bitterman’s latest cat-and-mouse game has only just begun, on the surface less of a thriller than A Death In Colombia, but then again appearances can be deceiving.

OpenHouse251 copy I could tell you more, but that would be to spoil Open House’s many surprises including a humdinger of a eleventh-hour twist and ensuing denouement, which you might see coming if you pay close attention to Chuck’s phone conversations with his younger daughter, but that’s about all you’ll get from me.

Veteran scribe Bitterman is an expert at creating real, believable characters, and in Cicchini and Gordon, he has found a pair of supremely talented Los Angeles actors to bring them to raw, vivid life.

O_H_0052-copy It takes an actor in Cuccini’s league to hold an audience’s interest while doing something as simple as perusing the Los Angeles Times, but terrific as Cicchini is when all alone on stage, his performance truly takes flight once he’s got a scene partner to play off of, playwright and actor peeling away the onion that is Chuck, layer by layer by layer.

Gordon is every bit as splendid, from early scenes in which Martha seems almost sleepwalking through life to interactions with Cicchini’s Chuck that begin to ignite her inner flames. A scene in which Martha relates a personal tragedy is particularly memorable in Gordon’s gifted hands, as is the sadness and the anger and the passion that the Antaeus Company treasure makes heartbreakingly real.

Playing in the Skylight Theater’s smaller space (make sure you don’t end up seated behind one of the added folding chairs), Open House puts the audience in close proximity to Chuck and Martha, allowing Cicchini and Gordon to give the kind of richly understated performances usually reserved for film.

O_H_0569-copy The designers assembled for this World Premiere make for as dreamy a team as any L.A theatergoer could wish for. Jeff McLaughlin’s scenic design places us smack dab in a living room we can believe belongs to one of those venerable Mid-City West homes, from its elegant wood paneling to its cushioned window seats to its antique wall sconces. McLaughlin’s lighting design is subtly brilliant, cuing us to time of day (or night) and in one particularly memorable sequence, showing us the time-lapse movement of the sun through curtained windows. Christopher Moscatiello’s masterful sound design makes us believe in the car pulling in and out of the driveway, in a cell phone ring that becomes un-muffled when the phone gets removed from a jacket pocket, and in the opening of a door in an unseen room in the back of the house. Roger Bellon’s original music score ups the dramatic ante in addition to linking Open House’s many scenes. Sara Ruttinger’s costumes are winners as well, particularly Martha’s, as the character begins significantly to add colors to her initially drab tones.

Christopher Hoffman is production stage manager. Colin Gardner is assistant to the director. Open House is produced by Gary Grossman. Adam Rotenberg is associate producer.

Robert Cicchini and Eve Gordon are actors you’d pay to see in just about anything. In a play as rewarding as Shem Bitterman’s latest, their performances make for a ninety-minute master class. This is one Open House you won’t want to pass up.

The Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 3, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

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