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Playing House

Main Street Theatre's production of 'The Housekeeper' is wonderfully awful

By Daedalus Howell

DON'T BE DUPED by the mawkish title--James Prideaux's The Housekeeper is a bloody, psychic-abattoir masquerading as romantic comedy. Largely concerned with the class ranking and retarded sexuality of its two characters (a trashy, self-invented housekeeper and a failed, self-published author), The Housekeeper--playing through Oct. 26 at the Main Street Theatre--predictably reconciles and unites this conflicted duo with such a jagged suture that the result is a maudlin, emotional Frankenstein . . . with plenty of laughs.

Prideaux's is a complicated work. An aspiring live-in maid and husband-hunter, Annie Dankworth (an animated Diane Bailey) arrives at the stately manor of middle-aged Manley Carstairs (estimably deployed by Gerald Haston) after learning that the wannabe scribe is in need of a housekeeper.

His ailing mother freshly dead (he still entreats her phantom advice), Manley proves an easy mark for Annie's career-conniving as she sashays into the curmudgeon's home sporting a bogus résumé and boasting fictional references. She is hired more because of Manley's closeted and lecherous nature than for her contrivances, however, and the ghastliness begins: a tête-à-tête on the chopping block.

Thankfully, director Jennifer King crafts an accessible interpretation of Prideaux's befuddled morass (essentially a two-act dialogue rife with rancor and dementia) that makes for entertaining theater despite the play's tired convolutions and the snap-on satisfaction of the ending.

King's keen casting accounts for much of her production's cogency. Haston (last seen as Sir Toby Belch in Main Street's Summer Shakespeare production of Twelfth Night) is remarkably adept at portraying psychological defeat and resignation. In Haston's hands, the ironically named Manley is a prissy specimen of sexual, professional, and artistic failure--a truly grating presence played with poise.

Bailey, too, creates an utterly repugnant character of Annie, handsomely meeting the author's intention in a photo-finish with Haston. Bailey's Annie rasps against her ruse until her obnoxious braying and heinous antics puncture and reveal her crude machinations.

Bailey shapes her character with cognizance. In the second act when Annie's Alice in Wonderland-style frock and apron are upgraded to a monstrous black sateen affair tip-topped with a rhinestone tiara (succinct costume design by Jennifer Mingoia), Bailey comically endows Annie with a sense of self-worth despite her wretched circumstances.

At times The Housekeeper is a relentless barrage of verbiage with which the players mostly succeed. Complications arise like weeds: Annie not only is trying to camouflage her bag-lady existence, but admits to being an "aging virgin"--a sexual status that she wants altered immediately. Correspondingly, Manley, regardless of his self-called "monastic existence," believes that he is a repressed sex maniac because of a tepid fantasy he entertains about a registered nurse and a bicycle. This match-made-in-Heaven subplot is one which Prideaux defaults to the most saccharine outcome. Director King, however, navigates these murky waters with a commendable agility, managing to keep the show afloat in defiance of its predilection for sandbars.

The set, also devised by King, makes admirable use of Main Street's cozy quarters: a budget-Victorian sitting room flanked by burgundy walls (thank Brian Marr's scenic painting), a couch, and writer's desk conspicuously lacking clutter--all nicely lit by Peter Fallon's mellow light design. The classical music that ushers in new sequences is an especially nice touch and a credit to Fallon's talents as a sound designer.

The Housekeeper is a pitch-black comedy that appears amiable, even benign, in the beginning but soon reveals itself as a psychological chamber of horrors. Not recommended for dates, this material will warm the hearts of anyone who revels in dysfunction.

Like the horrible fascination that makes one slow down to view a car wreck, The Housekeeper is a must-see.


The Housekeeper plays Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 26. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m. Main Street Theatre, 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. Tickets are $12. 823-0177.

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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