Arena Stage actress Halo Wines seems to be spending a lot of time this season walking away from intolerable domestic situations. At the end of "Passion Play," pushed to the limits by her adulterous husband, she packed her bags and bolted out the front door. And now here she is, at the end of "Real Estate," the fairly unpleasant British play by Louise Page at the Kreeger Theater, turning her back on her family, packing her briefcase and taking off briskly through the woods.
You can understand why. I'm not sure, however, that you will care.
The characters in this gray drama -- about a daughter who ran away from home at 18 and returns 20 years later, expecting to find (or appropriate) a place for herself -- are self-centered, spoiled, unthinking. They slight one another as a matter of course, avoid one another's questions, trample one another's needs and chew over old resentments they can never quite bring themselves to vent openly. Such, I grant, is the stuff of more than one Harold Pinter play. But while Page writes a similarly terse dialogue, it does not set off any notable depth charges, as Pinter's does.
Once you have pieced together the relationships, and those events out of the past that Page is willing to disclose, you will find your interest waning, and then your patience tested. The upshot of the evening -- Wines, as the mother, edged out of the house by the very daughter who once couldn't stand living there -- is not without irony. But it's an inconsequential irony. The daughter may be a monster, but the mother isn't exactly a saint herself. So the switch doesn't really seem to matter.
"Real Estate" is less a play than an embryonic screenplay. And it isn't so much about a failed reconciliation as it is about uncaring people who really would be better off on their own. It takes them 2 1/4 hours to come to that conclusion and reorder their lives accordingly. You will beat them to the punch in half the time.
At first, Jenny (Fran Brill), the unmarried daughter, appears to be extending an olive branch when she shows up in the woods outside the family home. All these years she has made no sign of life -- she even threw her house key in the river and changed her name when she fled to London. But she is pregnant now, and, fearful that she may have to abort the 6-week-old fetus, wants to know if she ever had rubella as a child. Reassured on that count, she begins working her way back into the house, into the affections of the stepfather (Stanley Anderson) she abhorred as an adolescent, into her mother's thriving real estate business. The olive branch turns out to be a crowbar.
The father of Jenny's child, a divorced man named Eric (Jeffrey Hayenga), is eager to marry her and make a home in London. But he has a 10-year-old daughter by his previous marriage, and Jenny begrudges him his bimonthly visitation rights. Besides, as she admits petulantly to her mother, she doesn't love him. She is merely fond of him.
Eric emerges as the one decent character in the bunch, although he does appear a bit of a dolt for putting up with Jenny as long as he does. The others have the generosity of a barnacle. All these years the mother has saved Jenny's teddy bear, but when she gives it to her daughter -- clearly as a peace offering -- Jenny promptly tosses it in a wastebasket. For her part, the mother is not above admitting Jenny was an unwanted child. Having a daughter, she confesses proudly, was just a ploy, "a cheap trick" to retain her first husband.
As for the stepfather, he has become a housewife in his retirement and resents the fact that Jenny's mother was never able to bear him children. He is none too sorry to see his wife move out if it means that Jenny, the incipient mother, will move in. But like much in this play, the sexuality underlying the daughter/stepfather relationship goes unexplored.
So it goes. Each time one character reaches out tentatively, it is to get slapped on the wrist by another. One step forward usually results in two steps backward. Everybody's emotional timing is off. Any pretext -- getting dinner on the table or walking Cleo, the family dog -- serves to stave off the huge, hulking ache within.
Except that neither Page, nor director Christopher Markle nor the cast is very adept at convincing us there is an ache within. If ever a production cried out for a vivid subtext, this is it. But under the fumbling hesitancies of "Real Estate" are more fumbling hesitancies. Pinched mannerisms hide pinched souls. Pettiness prevails. The actors are convincing as nags and complainers, but little else.
David Jenkins has designed the comfy family home and nestled it in an evocative autumn landscape, dotted with oak trees that have dropped most of their leaves and acorns. The acorns are, apparently, symbolic of fresh starts, new life in the making. Wines gathers one up early in the play, roots it in a glass of water, and then, when she is forced from her house, replants the tiny sapling in the ground. A mighty oak may from this little acorn grow. But Page's patch of real estate and its thoughtless inhabitants, I fear, breed mostly ennui.
REAL ESTATE by Louise Page. Directed by Christopher Markle. Sets, David Jenkins; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Paul Gallo. With Halo Wines, Fran Brill, Stanley Anderson, Jeffrey Hayenga. At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through March 31.