Twisting Corridors of a Deranged Suburbia, in Woolly Mammoth’s “House of Gold”
“House of Gold” has closed its doors, shutters, and weird basement entrance down at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, but I will say this: it lingers.
The new play by Gregory S. Moss—which got a world premiere production at Woolly—is not a terrific play. It surely is not a classic, well-made play, and it doesn’t even make any kind of narrative sense. But it pushes your buttons, and they’re the buttons you don’t usually wear out in public.
Director Sarah Benson and a production design that seemed to have been made by a nervous student on some unidentifiable drugs—and that’s a compliment—plus a cast with some gifted actors, put the show together as if they were all throwing a big bag of goo on the wall to see what sticks. A lot of it did, or I wouldn’t be thinking about it still.
“House of Gold” is ostensibly about the infamous, shameful and still unsolved—and therefore still haunting—Jonbenet Ramsey murder case, in which a six-year Colorado beauty queen contestant was found strangled in the basement of her home. The case—incomprehensibly sad, icky, sensational—touched all kinds of nerves in the country, and created a tsunami of celebrity publicity that washed over the whole country and left everybody feeling a little dirty.
Suspicions fell on the parents under a cloud because they had entered their little blonde girl in the wheezy world of children’s beauty contests, in which little girls are dressed up like grown up Barbie dolls, with a full arsenal of lipstick, teased hair and makeup. The mother first called it a kidnapping complete with a ransom note, a grand jury investigation was launched, and the parents Patsy and John Bennett Ramsey, were eventually cleared. Nearly ten years later, Patsy died of cancer. Months after that, a school teacher named John Mark Karr confessed to the murder, but DNA evidence nixed his claim.
Through it all, the paparazzi, the media, the scandal bees, show biz shows and Billy Bush wannabes had a carnivorous carnival feast. The case had all the hot buttons, the underbelly-of-America nightmares and daymares you could want: the queasy child beauty contests, the constant rumors, gossip and television appearance by cops, the parents, investigators and, for all I remember, seers and Sesame Street fans, psychics, psychologists, celebrity mag “reporters,” and thousands of people pretending to be insiders inside of the looking glass.
“House of Gold” touches on all of that, sometimes like a mosquito, sometimes like a fully engaged bloodsucker, sometimes in ways not imagined. Not only is the case front and center, but so is the picture of a middle class enthralled by cop and CSI shows with all the bones, guts and blood.
It’s hinky, it’s kinky, and it’s downright disturbing. The best thing in “House of Gold” was the performance by Kaaron Briscoe, a smallish, youthful-looking African American actress as “the girl,” aka Jonbenet, decked out in a distressing blonde Goldilocks wig, but also with a keen awareness of the disastrous vibes emanating from her own impending tragedy. I wouldn’t have said it upon first look, but the casting and performances sticks with you like a sad song at a piano bar.
There are scenes that ought to all but make you throw up, no more so then when a detective pulls out the child’s innards at an autopsy. There’s a lot of shock-schlock here. There’s the bullying, hopeless, overweight, wannabe friend Jasper, tormented at the hands of the Apollonian Boys, the worst the suburbs offer up. There’s the parents going at each other, not like the Cleavers, but with verbal cleavers. There is one Joseph M. Lonely, who entices Jonbenet into the basement by way of his van.
We never quite see the room—we see her peering out sometimes—as it is designed with glimpsing angles, like the set from “The Cabinet of Caligari,” the German expressionist silent movie. The rest is video, which is as it should be.
I think “House of Gold” is probably one of those plays that won’t endure as literature; you have to have seen it to disbelieve it. But the play itself threw some light, some hint of the event’s enduring power to fascinate, and hints at the stuff we’ve been fed ever since.
This is cutting-edge theater all right. The kind of cuts made with a knife dripping drool and blood and the remains of compassion.