Theater Review - 'The Breakers' turns housewarming party into marital nightmare

7 Stages uses every theatrical tool possible - and some that seem impossible - to convey a couple's emotional violence

There's nothing less festive than being at a party where the hosts are fighting. They might try to put on cheerful faces, but the guests can't help but notice the tension between them, the angry little barbs and awkward silences.

7 Stages' The Breakers does an ingenious job of recreating that uncomfortable atmosphere, then pushing it further than you could imagine. Writer/director Michael Haverty creates a suspenseful, disturbing study of marital stressors and violent emotions that draws on every theatrical tool at his disposal, and possibly invents some new ones.

The audience receives personalized nametags on arrival at the Goat Farm's cavernous, covered Goodson Yard building. We discover that we're attending a house-warming party for married couple Elliott and Alice (Kevin Stillwell and Angéle Masters), who mingle in character with the guests before the play officially begins. They also drop hints that not all is well between them, and we notice that Elliott's trying to recover from a corporate downturn and Alice's nerves are frayed.

Elliott and Alice take the audience on separate tours in and around their new home — essentially a red frame with small rooms and a few pieces of furniture in the middle of the performance space — then invite some guests to have dinner, as "investors," while the rest of the audience watches from outside. Elliott mentions that he works in personal and business surveillance, remarking, "Our systems give families a sense of safety." The audience, on the outside looking in, voyeuristically represents that surveillance, while video screens above the "house" show scenes from interior rooms, old home movies, and increasingly surreal animation, offering another window into their marriage.

Jealousies and resentments flare between Elliott and Alice at the party, and after the dinner guests leave, so does realism. While the script implies that financial and sexual shenanigans have occurred, it's seldom clear what they've actually done, but their personal anxieties and marital conflicts become physically manifest. At one point, Alice is violently attacked by thugs with black stockings over their faces, and Elliott subsequently pulls her out of the chimney.

Suspense movies with domestic settings seem to inspire much of The Breakers' imagery, which alludes to home invasions, stalkers, and even an indistinct video wraith worthy of a Japanese horror film like The Ring. A couple of sequences even play for comedic effect. At one point Elliott calls for an escort and seems to forget about it, and then an usher brings a female audience member in an animal mask to the door. And then another, and another, until the living room is crowded with masked escorts. It's like a nightmare of infidelity out of control, with elements of You're Next and the multiplying invaders of The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

The Breakers arguably contains more wild sequences and narrative "beats" than it can comfortably digest. When a show puts masked, stylized S&M rituals on display, it doesn't easily downshift back to domestic normalcy. And when I attended, it seemed to still be working out the kinks in its crowd control, which alternates between laid-back encouragement to watch the action from anywhere and confusing instructions to go to specific vantage points.

Even when The Breakers goes into seemingly insane directions, Masters and Stillwell keep the show anchored in their characters, so we accept the events as projections of their psyches, not just random stage effects. With its willingness to find elaborate, at times horrific visuals to match marital problems, The Breakers unfolds like a Netherworld-style haunted house built for married people.

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