Maybe you really can’t take it with you when you go, but Marion Clegg has bigger things to worry about — such as her complete and utter domination of everyone around her, from her swinish husband and her suicidal assistant to a couple of old friends she jettisoned on her rise to power as a real-estate tycoon. And money is useful for that, along with sex and the flinty heart playwright Caryl Churchill placed at the core of her first professionally staged play, 1972’s acidly funny Owners. It’s also a bit of a meander, even in the technically accomplished Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Churchill wanted to shake things up, both in structure and audience expectation, and took a lot of time doing what she would find easier to do later in such works as Top Girls and Cloud Nine. Owners takes a while to unfold, and there’s a lot of repetition; the story coud be tighter. But the underlying theme is fascinating.
Linguists make the distinction between alienable and inalienable possession in the way languages indicate ownership. If you take something away from someone physically, is it still theirs? What’s the difference between an item like a gun and a body part? A house and a relative? Knowing the difference is helpful if you’re learning a language that cares, but it’s an interesting and poetic concept outside of the academic setting, and Churchill works it here. There are the things that can easily be taken away, given away, sold, or traded to someone else. And then there are the things that are harder to countenance giving away or trading, such as Lisa and Alec’s apartment, or their baby. And then there’s another level of completely inalienable possessions that are getting tossed around casually, like Worsley’s life, which he spends the play trying to sacrifice. And of course the intangibles, such as love, truth, and commitment; all of them available at a price, if you can just figure out what it is.
The characters spend most of the play trying to figure out what it will cost to get what they want, and the story hinges on how ineffectual they largely all are, except for monstrous, attractive Marion, who doesn’t blink at bribery, arson, or murder. Uninterested in either likable characters or happy endings, Churchill gives us instead a sharklike woman who preceded the rush of them in ’80s pop culture, a woman as ruthless as a stereotypical man and as closed to emotion.
Trish Mulholland shakes the Ashby Stage, barely contained by a shiny blunt-cut wig and sassy shoes. What fun to see the company member usually tapped to play older (read: sexless) and vicious getting to play oversexed and vicious: Mulholland takes to the role with her usual enthusiasm and presence.
The play opens with a conversation between Marion’s butcher husband and her assistant/lover, as the former tries to sell the latter some bad meat. Most of the brightest moments in this production are the result of the chemistry between Howard Dillon’s Clegg and Ryan O’Donnell’s droll, sweet Worsley; Clegg tries to think of ways to kill his wife, and Worsley explains (from bitter personal experience) why they won’t work. Dillon is wickedly funny as he uses his basset-hound eyes and round belly to great advantage, especially in a second-act scene where he seduces, if we can call it that, another man’s wife. The thing is, Clegg talks a big game about honor, ownership, and vengeance — but he can barely follow through.
On opening night, Zehra Berkman’s Lisa — Marion and Clegg’s old friend who now stands in the way of Marion’s business dealings — was a little shaky in the first act. She didn’t appear to be reacting to the other actors, plowing through her own lines like ninepins. While Lisa is supposed to be enough of a wreck that we understand why she might sign away her baby to her husband’s lover, here she was just distractingly unfocused. Which might have been a temporary issue, as Berkman got a lot more interesting after the intermission, especially when the rumpled Lisa interacts with her chic downstairs neighbor. And the relationship between Lisa and her husband Alec undergoes the most subtle transformation of the play in the second act, which Berkman and a shaggy John Mercer as Alec managed without overplaying.
Of all the characters, Alec has the most interesting journey. Completely slack and lifeless at the beginning, by the end he has resolved into an almost Christlike figure, and the only one in the batch who seems to be an honestly good person. Not that it does him any good, a point Churchill likes to hammer home. Virtue isn’t its own reward in the Owners universe; it’s more of a liability.
Unapologetically political, deeply informed by her political and feminist convictions, and foreshadowing Churchill’s lifelong experimentation with theatrical form, Owners is a fascinating if sprawling look into the playwright’s process.