Mansion family values
by Richard Dodds
It's supposed to be the tour of a celebrated mansion, but it's more like a journey into the mind of its indecent docent. That would be Weston Ludlow Londonderry, a curious fellow indeed, who channels a repressed Id into architectural descriptions featuring, among other things, an appreciation for the abundance of rear entrances. Not much need of a Freudian expert to analyze that.
The full name of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's new play is A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, written as a site-specific production for Z Space with an actor-specific role for Danny Scheie. This combination of playwright and actor is a heady one, joining the efforts of one of the Bay Area's brightest playwriting talents with those of the region's arguably best character actor. They play to and off each other's talents, offering something akin to a wild abandon that's been finely tuned for an immersive experience.
An audience of about 50 that has been milling about Z Space's lobby suddenly discovers that the play has begun without the traditional shuffle off into the theater. In a preppy blue blazer, with an official-looking insignia sewn onto the chest pocket, Scheie suddenly appears on the scene as our tour guide, collecting tickets and giving us a primer on Hubert and Clarissa Porter's romance that began 155 years ago at an end-of-season ball – "the last chance to find breeding partners," Londonderry says of the socially secondary Hubert and Clarissa.
With introductions out of the way, our guide officiously starts a tour of their mansion through, of course, the back door. Over the next 90 minutes, we are led through a maze of rooms and hallways that suggest, in Sean Riley's massive set design and Jason Eagan's impossibly complex direction, the skewed sense of grandeur of its original occupants. But we quickly learn that House Tour is not so much about a house as it is about the guide, who reveals bits and pieces of his tightly wound inner workings through his tour narration. The audience becomes one of the instruments Londonderry plays as part of the personal chamber orchestra of his mind.
Scheie is seamlessly at one with his character, as moods can turn from fussbudget gentility to irrational discipline in a beat. As Nachtrieb's extravagantly wrought wordplay tumbles forth from Scheie, whether flirting with realism or diving into the absurd, we begin to suspect that Weston Ludlow Londonderry is not quite as authentic as his blazer emblem would suggest. Maybe it's his private conversations with Frederick, a tiny bird no one sees, or perhaps it's his disparaging comments about fellow tour guides Morgan, Emily, and Todd, who, we gather, don't approve of Londonderry's interpretation of history.
It all comes to a head in a breakdown that, quite literally, has our tour guide disappearing into the distance. When we are released to resume our unguided lives, the experience begins to feel like a fantasy. Did it really happen? Where were we? And who is Weston Ludlow Londonderry? The last question does find a sort of resolution, but it furthers the wonderful disorientation of A House Tour.
A House Tour will run at Z Space through April 23. Tickets are $22-$33. Call (866) 811-4111 or go to zspace.org.