Memories of the 2008 housing and banks crisis stir images of angry businessmen cursing in suits as foreboding numbers pile onto computer screens and corporate bigwigs sweat out backroom deals. Against this fast-paced scene, the iconic landscape of “The Grapes of Wrath,” with dispossessed families traversing the tall hills and long plains of the American land, may seem anachronistic. But the challenge of “House/Divided,” the smart, confident, and urgent new production by the techno-savvy ensemble troupe the Builders Association, is to imagine these scenes together, as two versions of a tragic, ever-repeating American story.
The set, designed by John Cleater and Neal Wilkinson, centers on a dismembered house that happens to be built from an actual home foreclosed in Ohio. Below the gable, a series of scrims reflect video of, alternately, scenes from the foreclosure process and scenes of Steinbeck’s Joad family traveling to California. On stage right, a parallel world of computer kiosks and market tickertapes represents Lehman, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and every other corporate entity whose employees robotically decide families’ fates from their phones and keyboards. The cast leaps between the worlds, playing the Joads as walking, affectless ghosts and the corporate employees as angry, tired, and overwhelmed suits. Thankfully, a few memorable characters emerge, including Jess Barbagallo's sweet but schoolmarmish auctioneer and LaToya Lewis' steely but principled female customer-service representative.
In its typical style, the Builders Association’s technological labyrinth treats its actors like extra machine parts, operating and rearranging the set while speaking all their lines into microphones. This emphasis on digital technology tends to dampen the theatrical elements in the company’s productions, leading to work that’s more pretty than potent. In “House/Divided,” though, the coldness of the mise en scène is a proper corollary for an age detached not only from its landscapes but from the narratives it once produced to make sense of itself.
It is not the harmonies but the disconnects between “The Grapes of Wrath” and the bank collapse that stand out in “House/Divided.” Where once an American writer could craft an epic story tying a family’s hardships to larger historical trends, now the distance between corporate suits and dispossessed lives feels entirely unbridgeable. What could the grim, robotic managers of Bank of America’s foreclosure deals possibly have in common with the desperate and terrified families sacrificed to the housing system’s essential inhumanity?
Such is the unstated subtext of the show’s culminating scene, in which Sean Donovan's fiercely resistant Alan Greenspan is interrogated for the failures of his “ideology.” Ideology, he reminds us, is the way we understand the world around us. “Everyone has one,” he says, “to be human.” How then, “House/Divided” dares to ask, do we make sense of a world as new and forbidding as ours?
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y. Oct. 24–27. (718) 636-4100 or www.bam.org.
Critic’s Score: A