Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s immersive play A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry tells the tale of Clarissa and Hubert Porter, a lubriciously inventive couple who could be lost relations of the Beales of Grey Gardens — describing them as eccentric would be a gross understatement.
As the audience gathers and grows in size inside the decorated Z Space foyer, the immersive experience has already begun. The Porters’ story is told through the person of Weston Ludlow Londonderry, a tour guide left over from the psychic remains of the Porter estate. Weston pops out of some hidden carapace backstage, issues an energetic preamble and then corrals the audience through the rear entrance of the mansion’s set with a tiny bullhorn, like a pied piper from some urban hell.
As Weston tells it, the Porters were misfits in a rejecting society who first stumbled into each other’s arms — and so much more — while waltzing together at a dance. Their mutual attraction is described, alluded to, and continually reaffirmed in a singular 90-minute monologue that delivers an astounding amount and variety of sexual innuendo and euphemism.
Danny Scheie, a fixture in the Bay Area theatre community, inhabits the role with a vengeance. With each glowering facial expression, he hisses his lines, roars or snarls them, finally charming us in the same way a snake does just before he’s about to feed. It’s a devilish performance that elicits a primal cranial fear. Scheie doesn’t just demand our respect; he orchestrates our submission, if never our affection. But then a playwright who devises a hundred and one ways to suggest the act of sodomy is way past the sentimentality of first base hand-holding.
What A House Tour does offer is some purposeful eavesdropping on the life of one odd couple who find tolerance, acceptance, passion and love with each other. As a point of comparison, think of Grey Gardens and what the Maysles brothers accomplished with their film about Big and Little Edie. It gave new meaning to the expression, “If these walls could talk.” Watching the forlorn and haunted Beales in their crumbling estate is like watching the entire lifespan of a family house move toward its death throes. If you were ever to tour the place, you’d know exactly why it fell into such a state of disrepair.
Nachtrieb here creates a similar if parallel plot for the Porters. It's as if we're listening in on the strange garbled sounds coming from deep within their compound. The point he seems to be making is that every house communicates on its own terms which often remain incomprehensible to outsiders, to anyone unrelated to the owners. This peculiarity lends itself to every family’s unspoken yet keenly enforced set of rules, its arguments, and the private habits that are enacted behind closed doors.
In that sense, the imagined world of the Porter Family Mansion, perversely, is really no different than any other home on the street where you live. You just may not speak the same language as your neighbors, or have a willing translator standing by who is as verbally dexterous as tour guide Weston.
A House Tour, through April 23, at Z Space, 450 Florida St, 415-626-0453.