Hell house

It's easy to laugh at drunks. It's only a little tougher to laugh at death. Insanity? Infidelity? Incest? All have been comedy stalwarts since the days of Middle English and beyond, and all are fodder for the funny bits in Rude Guerrilla's production of The House of Yes, a sick, sarcastic and uncomfortably (but seductively) intimate romp through the repressed-for-good-reason wilds of the psyche. Sure, it's an agonizingly bleak and uncompromising portrait of the infinite human capacity for self-destruction and self-delusion, but it'll still make you laugh until you cry—or maybe cry until you laugh.

If there's one lesson to learn from the House of Yes, it's that the family that decays together stays together. Mrs. Pascal (Susan Shearer/Stewart) presides boozily over a brood rotten with corruption and detached intellectual decadence; even though they live in Washington, D.C., it's really more of a New York kinda household. Anthony (Keith Bennett) is a dropout and Jackie (a white-hot Rachel Davenport) is, well, a bit of a lone nut—she has a thing for Jackie Onassis, but she's a Lee Harvey Oswald gal all the way. Only Marty (Daniel J. O'Brien) has escaped to a semblance of a real life in the big city, and now he's bringing someone from the outside world home for Thanksgiving: his fiance (Elisabeth Ginnett). Naturally, the family reacts to this home invasion with measured Oswaldian aplomb. Bring earplugs because shots will be fired.

Unsubtle gunfire aside, of course, House of Yes is a delicate production. It'd be easy to get sloppy and let the vitriol dissolve everything else in the play, and it'd also be easy to get swamped in the precise and bristly dialogue, as happened in the film version a few years back. Instead, the Rude Guerrilla ensemble and director Jeff Marx manage to preserve the few shreds of vulnerability in their characters, vitally counterpointing the play's jagged edges. Davenport deserves special note: her every calculated move adds an uncomfortably palpable intensity to the production, and her ability to transmit flashes of the humanity submerged in Jackie's insanity sets a standard for the cast. When a livid Marty breaks down and tells her he's tired of being above everything, that he wants to be human, she glibly responds, “Okay, fine, so let's be human.” Too bad it's never quite that easy—but at least we can still laugh.

The House of Yes at the Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through April 15. $15; students and seniors, $12.

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