Peter Sinn Nachtrieb has done something rather amazing with his new play, A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, at Z Space. The dramatist has taken the docent-led house tours you find at famous stately homes and their ilk and lovingly recreated their most irritating and hollow qualities. By doing so, Nachtrieb has turned what might at best be considered a degraded and unrecognized form of theater into something chttps://kqed-wingspan.silkroad.com/ws/Login.aspx?ReturnUrl=%2fws#lose to a potent and moving piece of art.
This alchemical stunt begins right in the Z space lobby, which has been decked out to resemble the starting point of the tackiest of historical house tours. There’s the endlessly looping informational video, as portentous as it is delightfully nonsensical: “Billions of years ago, Mother Nature forged the Planet Earth and this land we stand on.” There are the mannequins in period costumes, posed to suggest a drama and animation that they can’t come close to realizing. And most prominently, there is our docent and guide, Weston Ludlow Londonderry. The character is brought to life in a sustained and amazing performance by veteran Bay Area actor Danny Scheie, for whom Nachtrieb wrote the play.
Nachtrieb expertly balances two unrelated narratives throughout. The first is the love story of Hubert and Clarissa Porter -- this after all is the Porter Family Mansion tour. The second is that of Londonderry himself, the epitome of the know-it-all docent. Like all of his kind, Londonderry possesses an inflated sense of purpose and a maniacal belief in the importance of the lives he recounts to unenlightened tourists. Sadly, he knows the Porters better than he knows himself.
And that’s one of Nachtrieb’s better and most effecting jokes: what exactly is Londonderry’s level of awareness? Does he know that he’s a fool? That he’s explosively violent? That he’s gay? When he mentions his wife -- “Don’t get me started on the wife that I have” -- the audience erupts in joyful disbelief. That he’s only happy when he’s talking in the filthiest possible manner seems funny at first and then becomes an awful self-flagellation. And the beautiful complexity of it all is that Nachtrieb perfectly realizes these psychic fissures in the canned performance of "docent talk." This is parody as a form of self-revelation.
Now in real life, docents are often inept performers; and the tours they lead, the graveyard of talentless drama majors. And that’s where A House Tour gets most of its strange charge. Because Scheie is so electric and Nachtrieb’s writing so alert and ornate, the situation of the tour gathers a tension and depth that you never would have imagined. You start to understand the love story of Hubert and Clarissa as Londonderry does, and so his belief in the couple's significance starts to seem both justified and a mystery worth solving.