Bill Pullman and David Harbour are the *names* in Theresa Rebeck’s Mad House at Ambassadors Theatre, but it’s Sinéad Matthews I wanted to see
“I don’t think he’s in pain because he’s so energetically committed to inflicting it”
I’ve long known you should never book a play just for one person but sometimes it is just too hard to resist. Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy Mad House may have been sold on the promise of leading men Bill Pullman and David Harbour but it was the later announcement of Sinéad Matthews in the supporting cast that persuaded me to risk the limited legroom of the Ambassadors Theatre once again. And she only bloody doesn’t turn up til the second half 😂
The show is a weird one in all honesty, caught between dark comedy and something more profound and not really nailing either. Daniel (Pullman) is an ailing patriarch in denial about his fate and taking it out all too often on his son and carer Michael (Harbour), a man who has his own mental health battles. Visits from health workers and prostitutes vary the tone but it is with the talk of Daniel’s will that the play begins to motor with the arrival of his other children.
The sibling relationship is viciously complex and what arises is as much a battle for Michael’s sanity as David’s legacy but the shifts of the second half are near-preposterous and sadly far too divorced from what passed pre-interval. And sadly, it is Matthews’ Pam that is the driver of much of this madness, lumbered with a too-loud, one-note piledriver of unpleasantness instead of a character. Around her, the play falls to pieces too, smushing in a puerile ending for good measure.
But there’s also much of promise here in Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production. Bill Pullman is acidicly compelling as the miserable patriach but it is David Harbour who really impresses, able to layer in pathos to the one sign of humanity in this dysfunctional family (I’d forgotten I’d actually seen him onstage before in the Kathleen Turner-starring 2006 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). Stranger things may have happened but this wasn’t the one for me.