Alliance’s ‘Dream Hou$e’ flips from comedy to drama

On the latest episode of a fictitious home-improvement series called “Flip It and List It,” two estranged Latina sisters basically reunite to become equal parts reality-TV participants and game-show contestants in playwright Eliana Pipes’ “Dream Hou$e,” this year’s winner of the Alliance Theatre’s annual Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition.

Their mother has recently passed away, so they tentatively agree to put on the market the modest home that has been in the family for generations, as property values continue to rise in their gentrified California neighborhood. (When the sisters grew up there, it used to be known as Hilovilla, but now it goes by Highville.) Once the makeover is complete, television viewers will have an opportunity to bid on the house, with a few million dollars potentially at stake.

Soon enough, the show’s perky host arrives, invading the home with a small multipurpose crew in tow — alternating as sound technicians, set decorators, hair or makeup artists, painters and general renovators (or demolitionists, as the case may be) — and addressing various segments of the audience in the Alliance’s Hertz studio space as if we were the TV cameras capturing all the action on the scene. “The secret is to pretend that the camera isn’t even there,” she advises the understandably dazed siblings, “but also to never forget that it is.”

When she’s not eliciting from the sisters intimate anecdotes about their lives and their personal experiences in the house, she’s abruptly springing on them pop quizzes, “bonus challenges” and “redemption rounds,” reminiscent of any number of different actual TV game shows. Drama is one thing, she suggests, but “entertainment value” is another (arguably higher) priority.

Or maybe not. To be sure, as a satirical send-up of reality TV, Pipes’ play is frequently sharp and on-target — notwithstanding periodic internal asides between the sisters, when the rest of the characters freeze in place while the two of them engage in more serious discussions regarding ancestral history or heritage or legacy. Kendeda prize winners can’t be just funny; above all, apparently, they need to seem socially relevant and culturally significant.

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

“Dream Hou$e” is a co-production with Long Wharf Theatre (in New Haven, Connecticut) and Baltimore Center Stage (in Maryland), and directed by Laurie Woolery (of New York’s Public Theater). As the more sensible older sister, Patricia, who sacrificed to care for their mother in her final years, Jacqueline Correa excels in the cast, which also includes Darilyn Castillo as the pregnant younger sister, Julia, and Marianna McClellan as Tessa, the TV personality.

No sooner do the walls start literally coming down inside the family home than the rest of “Dream Hou$e” begins figuratively falling apart, too. One possible deal-breaker emerges when the renovations reveal an extensive mold infestation problem. Another cause for alarm is the discovery of several heirlooms and “gifts” buried within the walls, which gives rise to second thoughts about selling the property at all.

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Suddenly, Tessa is capable of barging her way into those private asides between the sisters — gleefully, at first, but quickly taking both of them to task with more menacing considerations. In Julia’s case, that means forcing her to reconcile her own romanticized views about the past with some realities about the family. And it also means confronting Patricia with her misguided dreams for the future, where anything might be worth selling, if the price is right.

Pipes’ drastic tonal shift in the end abandons her initially engaging premise, as though her imaginary “Flip It and List It” viewers had turned their channels from HGTV to SYFY by mistake.


THEATER REVIEW

“Dream Hou$e”

Through Feb. 13. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. $25-$50 ($10 for teens). Also available for streaming Feb. 11-27. Alliance Theatre Hertz Stage (at the Woodruff Arts Center), 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org.

Bottom line: An uneasy mix of reality-TV satire and heavy-handed surrealism.