Review: Westport Country Playhouse's 'Tiny House' showers viewers with surprises, some disturbing

Don’t those cute tiny houses one sees posted on social media and niche real estate listings look heavenly? Especially one nestled snugly amidst Sequoia trees, sequestered far away from the maddening crowd?

Tiny House,” Michael Gotch’s new play kicking off Westport Country Playhouse’s virtual, 90th season, submits that the reality of living in such an attractive home is more than a tad more complicated than the photos suggest.

New homeowners Sam and Nick are the central characters in Gotch’s “Tiny House,” which continues its virtual production, accessible on-demand through July 18. They have their reasons for abandoning the rat race in favor of a peaceful existence “off the grid” and forswear the strident excesses of their fortunes for nature’s tranquility.

“Well, hardy-har-har!” one can hear Ralph Kramden chuckling in the distance.

Splendidly directed by Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos, “Tiny House” is about a long-overdue reckoning now at hand as Sam and Nick invite a disparate handful of family members and acquaintances to fête their new life together on the Fourth of July.

In a sense, experiencing the Playhouse’s virtual production may actually better serve Gotch’s transcendental play than a traditional in-person, on stage production. Though grounded in the couple’s very concrete problems, much of the play defies naturalism or cute quirkiness. While the slick post-production work smooths out the overlapping dialogue and creates the illusion of multiple characters inhabiting the same space, there is no hiding the green screen effect. We recognize that the beautiful vistas are virtually imposed rather than real. They just might reflect how the characters idolize their new environment.

Each of Sam (Sara Bues) and Nick’s (Denver Milord) five guests tilt towards archetypes or paranormal, starting with Sam’s mother Billie (Elizabeth Heflin). She redeems her stereotypical stage mother-monster in Act I with welcome depth of soul in Act II (theatergoers will doubtlessly sense Gotch’s transition in tone and content from his brittle, at times unbearably blistering Act I, to his nakedly compassionate Act II). Her partner Larry (Lee E. Ernst), formerly her brother-in-law who, in the tradition of some ancient cultures, has replaced his absent brother as husband, initially strikes us as an over-the-top science nerd, only to reveal his own gentle humanity in a beautiful monologue.

Nearby couple Win (Stephen Pelinski) and Carol (Kathleen Pirkl-Tague) are tie-dyed in everything hippie, Renaissance Faire and sativa. Yet they prove more guardian angels than Woodstock relics, and Carol proves herself quite the sage.

Then there’s Bernard (Hassan El-Amin), aptly described in Gotch’s transcript as an enigma. More paramilitary than paranormal, Bernard seems to magically come and go without warning, armed to the teeth, to check up on his new neighbors lest they fail to acknowledge the inevitable fireworks at evening’s end.

Editor Dan Scully and director of photography Lacey Erb provide a cutting-edge production that overcomes virtually all of the immutable annoyances of Zoom theater, from its inability to create the illusion of characters sharing a common space, to the lagging sound that ruins the desired crisp pace of comedy. Scully and Erb conquer these obstacles and allow Gotch’s fast-paced script to come alive in naturalistic, entertaining fashion. The design team shares praise with the actors who initially performed the play two years ago on stage at Delaware’s Resident Ensemble Players. They relate with each other so genuinely that their performances look as organic as one could desire with in-person performances.

When Billie asks Sam why she dislikes fireworks, Sam answers in part by saying, “They scare me…They don't feel like a celebration. They feel like bad surprises.”

“Tiny House” showers surprises, both disturbing and cleansing, on its audience. Like Gotch’s colorful characters, one would want to be sure that one’s house is in order before the inevitable duck and cover warning call arrives.

Virtual tickets for “Tiny House,” starting at $25, are available at westportplayhouse.org, at 203-227-4177, or by email: boxoffice@westportplayhouse.org.

E. Kyle Minor is a freelance writer and theater critic.