BOSTON — The Builders Association is a fascinating company. On the one hand its populist sensibility makes the late Pete Seeger look like Jordan Belfort. On the other it boasts an extraordinary state-of-the art panoply of stagecraft. The audio-visual elements of “House/Divided” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre are on a par with any of the other tech-savvy companies that ArtsEmerson brings to Boston.
The title of the theater piece refers to different divisions. There’s the divided house brought on by the subprime mortgage disaster, with families evicted from places they thought were home. And there’s the country as a whole, divided into the haves and the have-nots and you know what a guy named Lincoln said in regard to that — “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Writers James Gibbs and Moe Angelos have another history lesson in mind as well — that of the fictional Joad family from “The Grapes of Wrath” making their way from Oklahoma to California during the Depression. They were also victims of capitalism run amok and a banking system that failed the country.
As they begin their trek on one side of the stage the contemporary wolves of Wall Street are playing their masters-of-the-universe games on the other — with neat doubling by the soulful ensemble. Most impressive are Austin Switser’s video design featuring dramatically superimposed visuals and Dan Dobson’s sound design and original music, all choreographed by director Marianne Weems.
Here's a sense of the look and sound of the piece:
You would think all that would be enough and, indeed, I started out loving “House/Divided” for all these reasons. The two things that are missing, though, are development and nuance. You get the picture pretty quickly — the Joads are victims, the banks are predators.
Some thought, not I, that Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolves of Wall Street” lacked the realization that there were victims to these sleazebags’ crimes. “House/Divided” goes too far in the opposite direction. Joad family all the salt of the Earth. People who work for the banks and Wall Street all sons and daughters of Satan. Over and over again for almost 90 minutes.
It doesn’t matter how righteous the anger or how strong the visuals, it’s just not good theater after a while. The depiction of Alan Greenspan at the end of the theater piece is a case in point. I’m no fan of Greenspan, but his admission that the deregulators, upending a lifetime of his ideological beliefs, went too far took some courage.
Of course, by then, it was clear that he — and Bill Clinton, among other Democrats — had bought into an ideology that left the madmen in charge of the asylum. But portraying Greenspan as a weasel in this context seems adolescent. Good lefty playwrights, from Bernard Shaw to Tony Kushner, know that you give the best lines to the opposition and build your argument from there. Gibbs and Angelos could learn from them. By play’s end, “House/Divided” is a record/broken.