House of Gold

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Editorial Review

JonBenet Ramsey mythology languishes in sad, dark 'House of Gold'

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Can you write a play about the exploitation of JonBenet Ramsey without seeming to exploit her sordid death yourself? Fourteen years after the 6-year-old's body was found in a Colorado basement -- a crime whose mysterious circumstances endlessly titillated the public -- dramatist Gregory S. Moss dredges up the story for "House of Gold," a morbid intrusion on an exhausted subject.

The world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, directed with modernist flourishes by Sarah Benson, suggests that after the police and the tabloid media have finished their jobs, the time has come for the nation's ironists to move in. But "House of Gold" does not possess the sharpness of insight or wit required for a galvanizing revisit to the facts or the mythology of the Ramsey case. It languishes in a zone of questionable taste, somewhere between satire and pseudo-sermon.

Although the 90-minute piece does attempt to craft its own narrative style -- a structure that circles and then infiltrates the child's consciousness and finally that of the actress who plays her -- the form is too diffuse to sustain much interest. Unlike innovators of language and emotional content such as Mac Wellman or Richard Maxwell, Moss fails to point his theatrical compass in a direction of sufficient impact.

Or maybe his choice of material obscures his style. "House of Gold" wants us to believe that JonBenet's story can't be laid to rest not only because her murder is as yet unsolved but also because the sexualization of young children remains a perverse American industry. All this might be true, but the play seeks to shock us with poeticized expressions of what we already know. "There are organs inside your organs; there are stories inside your blood," a detective portrayed by Mitchell Hebert says to actress Kaaron Briscoe, who goes by the victim's name in the play but is identified in the program simply as The Girl.

The detective's observation comes after a cartoonishly grotesque autopsy of JonBenet, in which he yanks her heart, spleen and kidneys from her prostrate body. When the girl on the table surprisingly springs back to life, demanding the return of her innards, the policeman becomes irate. Everyone on the margins of the case, it seems, wants his or her pound of flesh.

Is there much in the way of revelatory drama to be gleaned in this exercise? "House of Gold" views the environment enveloping the girl, a veteran of child beauty contests, as a hostile carnival of flesh peddlers and flesh seekers, and it presents the girl as an emblem: The choice of an adult black actress to play her, in a blonde wig and sparkly pageant dress with garish pink ruffles, is a device that reminds us that the little girl has ceased to exist in the public's mind as who she really was.

The play begins promisingly enough, in the first of a series of arresting settings by designer David Zinn: the white-on-white kitchen of a suburban couple who mime with amplified sound effects the banal routine of a morning meal. Dressed in wakeup colors of pink and purple, Woman (Emily Townley) and Man (Michael Russotto) reveal the funny-dreary torpor into which The Girl is born. In an attic room lined with colored lights and vast mirrors, Briscoe's JonBenet will soon appear, crooning to a recording of cowboy yodeling that's well beyond the limited scope of her talent.

Her disturbing looking-glass leads to a world full of menace, whether it's in encounters with her presumed parents or outside the house: Russotto's Man perches creepily on a bed, andTownley's Woman resentfully applies makeup to the child's face. Jasper (Randy Blair), an aggressive neighborhood misfit, waits for a chance to take her to his room, while the more sinister Joseph M. Lonely Jr. (James Flanagan) pops jack-in-the-box style out of the floor, hoping to entice the girl into his van.

These unappetizing vignettes, culminating in a long scene in which the girl is unwittingly drawn into Lonely's subterranean lair, form a monotonous chronicle of the malice that suffuses the atmosphere around a vulnerable child. The director adds slick touches -- the scene in the predator's den is simulcast on a large video screen -- and the actors capably satisfy the dictates of their sardonic roles. But the sensation that lingers is chiefly one of sadness, that this poor child is defenseless, even against the whims of modern drama.

By Gregory S. Moss. Directed by Sarah Benson. Sets and costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matt Tierney; projections, Aaron Fisher. With Andrew M. Lincoln, Ben Kingsland, William Hayes.