Live Theatre Workshop is giving James Prideaux's The Housekeeper a mixed-blessing production.
Director Christopher Johnson and actors Michael Woodson and Kristi Loera manage to bring sensitivity and nuance to the rather cartoonish characters, making this seem like a better, more substantial, more psychologically adept play than it really is. But in the process, the production slightly downplays some of the cheap and easy laughs that would attract an audience simply looking for some light late-summer entertainment.
The setup is simple, the outcome predictable; the only real interest is in how Prideaux and his characters travel from the story's beginning to its end. The first scene takes place on the fourth day of Annie Dankworth's employment as housekeeper to Manley Carstairs, a reclusive, curmudgeonly novelist. Annie is a terrible housekeeper, and we eventually learn that Manley's literary skill is equally abysmal. Right off the bat, they declare their hatred for each other. Right off the bat, you know exactly how things will turn out for the couple.
The details of their sparring and manipulation aren't very believable, and too often, Prideaux seems content merely to dance his two stock characters back and forth across the stage. The playwright does, however, give each character an interesting, rather sad back story. Johnson and the performers take this material seriously, rather than deploy it as gigglefodder, and here, at last, the characters become more sympathetic to each other and the audience.
What Annie and Manley have in common is that each is convinced of his or her greatness, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Annie declares herself to be an incredibly desirable femme fatale; the reality, as she realizes when she catches a glimpse of herself reflected in a window, is that she's become a dumpy bag lady, and her need for a job in Manley's house—and for Manley himself—is greater than she'll readily admit. For his part, Manley is the smothered son of an oppressive and recently deceased mother; he writes execrable prose in the style of Poe edited by James Joyce. He also harbors some fairly innocent sexual fantasies that have him convinced that he is a potentially dangerous pervert.
Sexual politics and class warfare figure in the characters' interaction, but only a few not entirely coy sexual references suggest that this play dates from the early 1980s rather than the 1940s. There's something antiquated about the whole thing, and not just the regressive figure of Manley Carstairs.
Whatever you think about Manley—and your opinion is likely to drift during the course of this play—Michael Woodson plays the character to the hilt. Woodson is an expert in hammy, smug, self-important roles like this, and it's a testament to Woodson's skill that Manley is always amusing, never a bore. Similarly, Kristi Loera (who appeared in LTW's production of this play a few years ago) slouches and flops around in her dowdy dress and workboots, but she's full of coiled energy, suggesting that there's more to Annie than meets the eye (or the ear, via Prideaux's dialogue).
Director Johnson keeps things flowing, and manages to cast some figurative darkness around Prideaux's overbright characters without plunging the whole thing into gloom. Richard and Amanda Gremel have assembled a simple but functional in-the-round set whose old-fashioned furniture and superfluity of doilies neatly convey how stuffy life had been under the supervision of Manley's mother.
Some theatergoers might wish for a broader, more guffaw-laden approach to the material, and that would certainly fit the script and create greater buzz. But there's much to be said for this even-keeled navigation of Prideaux's slightly murky script.