An authentically written, believably acted gay couple, a supporting cast mostly out of sitcomland save one refreshingly non-stereotypical evangelical, a sudden life-altering cataclysm, an overwrought detour into solo performance territory, and an apparent case of demonic possession inside a fixer-upper Craftsman-style house just outside L.A. add up to one decidedly disjointed dramedy in Tony Abatemarco’s Forever House, now getting its World Premiere at Los Feliz’s Skylight Theatre.
Things get off to a promisingly straightforward start with the introduction of 30something professionals Ben (James Liebman) and Jack (Michael Rubenstone), a long-partnered couple who’ve signed onto a thirty-year-mortgage but haven’t yet taken the marital plunge despite marriage equality across the land.
Tall, lanky, laid-back Ben and compact, robust, neurotic Jack would seem to be the perfect example of opposites attracting, and the suburban house they’ve just bought (one which a much younger Jack and his too-soon-widowed mom used to call home) has a spare bedroom that would be just right for a nursery should the couple ever decide either to conceive with the help of a third party or to adopt, a decision more easily discussed than made.
The dual arrivals of the couple’s superficially welcoming neighbor Gloria (Elyse Mirto) and their flamboyantly coiffed realtor Bill (Joel Swetow) seem not to pose that much of a tonal threat at first, but left alone, the conservative wingnut and the closeted bisexual reveal themselves to have wandered in from Al and Peg Bundy land, and later, it takes only a few swigs from a pocket flask for Bill to get falling-down drunk in a way that would do anyone on The Simpsons proud but proves over-the-top here. Even Jack’s ever-kvetching mom Evelyn (Dale Raoul) veers perilously close to Jewish mamaleh caricature.
Add to this Jack’s insistence that the ghostly cries that only he can hear are coming from a small boy hiding down in the basement, and you’ve got yet another a plot twist adding to Forever House’s tonal dissonance.
Fortunately, once a year has passed and Ben and Jack once again get to spend some alone time together, Abatemarco’s play regains its footing throughout most of Act Two, that is until Jack’s meltdown into “Gayland” and the kind of extended monolog you might expect to see at Highways or La Mama but not in a Craftsman-style living room.
Under Elizabeth Swain’s direction, Liebman and Rubenstone are both quite terrific, a credibly matched couple whom anyone but the most bigoted neighbor would gladly welcome next door, and though Rubenstone gets the showier role, it is Liebman’s subtle, grounded work that makes the more lasting impression. (The duo’s contrasting reactions to a heartbreaking bit of news are both beautifully played.)
Supporting cast members are less well served by their characters’ lack of subtlety, though Swetow and Mirto’s Act Two born-again couple (whose arrival is prompted by the earlier-mentioned sudden life-altering cataclysm) are gratifyingly three-dimensional, and Mirto especially does absolutely exquisite work as an open-minded evangelical-with-a-past.
Scenic designer John Iacovelli has created a Craftsman-style living room that’s sure to look quite fabulous once the walls have been painted, the floors stripped and polished, and furniture moved in, then takes us down to the basement for a colorfully-painted nursery-in-progress. Jeff McLaughlin and Peter Bayne have contributed respectively a lighting design and a sound design/original music that befit Forever House’s ever-changing moods. Terri A. Lewis’s costumes suit each character’s personality quite nicely indeed. Nicholas Santiago’s projection design and Mike Mahaffey’s fight direction step in effectively when needed.
Christopher Hoffman is production stage manager. Forever House is produced by Gary Grossman. Rachel Berney Needleman is associate producer.
Same-sex coupling, marriage, and parenting. Forever House has much to say about the changing world in which we live, and about half the time it does this quite well. It would do so even better if it picked a tone and stuck with it.
The Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.
February 5, 2016
Photos: Ed Krieger