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.
What room will Londonderry lead us to next? Which will he skip? Why is he so obsessed with Hubert and Clarissa’s mammoth bathroom? Why do we have to eat cookies there? Most importantly, how will the space itself bend to his will? In Sean Riley’s amazing set that’s exactly what happens: rooms appear, reconfigure, and disappear in strange ways. It's as if the house has come alive to Londonderry’s mania; the effect is hallucinatory and a triumph of writing and design.
Most environmental or immersive productions are clunky and visually dead. All that moving around tends to dissipate the narrative tension, and the lack of consistent sight lines doesn’t allow for complex and sustained images. Nachtrieb and Riley account for those limitations by accounting for everything. There’s almost no inconsequential shuffling from room to room. And there are scores of stunning images -- a magical bar of butter, a mass of people rubbing their hands in a bathroom, a crowd marching for the pleasure of a German butler, the sky opening up to reveal one man's quest for transcendence. At first these moments seem like happenstance, but happenstance doesn’t happen over and over again.
Nachtrieb is the resident playwright at Z Space and wrote A House Tour specially for the distinct possibilities of that huge warehouse space. It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed stunt that burrows deep into the psyche of a sick man. The fact that it’s all so fun and delightful is, upon reflection, more than a little disturbing. I’m not sure that it ends as it should, or that Nachtrieb has realized the full complexity of what he’s set in motion. You exit the theater wanting that last bit of wild that neither play nor production seems quite ready to embrace.
And yet what we have is masterful. A House Tour is a play that makes us want to take on the delusions of an angry fool and see even the nastiest of that fool’s desires as significant and worthy of respect. Let us all be kind to the house tour docents of the world -- without them, no mystery would ever be solved.
A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry plays through Saturday, Apr. 23 at the Z Space in San Francisco. For tickets and information go to www.zspace.org.