Angelina Martinez’ The HOA, now playing at the Factory Theater, has many theatrical predecessors. Almost any show or film dealing with cults is a spiritual ancestor of this play about a homeowner’s association that is far more than meets the eye, as newcomers Steve and Cassie discover. The replace-wives-with-robots film The Stepford Wives is such an obvious influence that Martinez has her characters call it out. But the one precursor that I can’t stop thinking of is The Matrix. In that now-iconic film, Keanu Reeves’ Neo is given a choice: take the red pill to understand the horrible truth about your life, or take the blue one and blissfully forget it all. Ultimately, that is what these two young professionals have to deal with.
Steve (Andrew Cawley), a pharmaceuticals sales rep, has just had an offer of a new position that is so insanely good that he simply has to take it. Unfortunately doing so has forced him and his wife Cassie (Jennifer Betancourt) to move to a new home in a new subdivision where many of his new colleagues also live. Cassie, a scientist who actually makes the drugs her husband sells, is forced to quit her job, but doesn’t think it will be a problem to find a new one with her resumé. These two young people end up living on the cul-de-sac from hell, a street of seeming suburban happiness that, Cassie quickly realizes, somehow ends up destroying the individuality of all of its female residents, leaving them compliant household and sexual servants to their husbands.
Surreptitiously working with the only two others on the block who have not been affected by whatever-this-is, Cassie is determined to find a way to stop it and reverse the Stepford cult in which none of the wives—former professionals all—even has a job, instead staying home to be perfect for their husbands. (Director Christy Arington illustrates this with her scene changes, in which the affected women literally dance like Snow White or Cinderella while cleaning and setting up.) Cassie easily traces all of this to Syd (Eric Frederickson), the unofficial leader of the pack here, a psychiatrist-with-a-secret who holds an inordinate amount of sway over the men and women of the cul-de-sac. But knowing this and understanding how it is being done or what to do about it are completely different matters.
Her resolve is not helped at all by Steve’s steep slide into blue-pill territory: he can’t see any of the ugliness that she does. He doesn’t see one pregnant wife who unabashedly serves her husband, even fetching beers for him when he is standing practically on top of the cooler. He doesn’t see anything bizarre about another wife who acts openly like a sex maniac when with her husband. He doesn’t see when Maddie (Brittany Ellis) and Daphne (Ashley Yates), the other holdouts, suddenly find themselves blue-pilled. He doesn’t even see the unnatural influence Syd and his wife Stephanie (Moira Begale) have on everyone, which goes so far as to include which painter works on their houses and what medicines they take. No biggie to Steve, who also doesn’t see the changes coming over himself, but a huge red flag to Cassie, who refuses to give in and ultimately does discover what is going on.
Martinez’ sharp dialogue sets all of this up quite well, even if she does create a black-and-white, either-or power structure that even a late semi-reversal can’t take the clichés out of. And Arington’s quick, decisive direction keeps the action flowing even through multitudinous scene changes. But…
And this is a huge “but”…
I sadly cannot be specific about my reasons because…spoilers, but I simply could not believe the events of the final scene. Based on incomprehensible character decisions, they defy and negate so much of what has come before that I felt absolutely used as I left the theatre. There is the barest hint that maybe things are not as they seem, but nowhere near enough for me even to be sure I was seeing it. I want to recommend this play, or at the very least the excellent performance by Betancourt; I really do. Its themes are (unfortunately) timely, and the cast and crew do a fine job bringing it to life. I just…can’t. I felt that the ending is utterly inexplicable, and that ruined the whole experience. Congrats to Factory Theater and everyone involved for tackling a very interesting new drama. I just wish Martinez had been able to make her ending derive better from what came before it.
Tickets are available from The Factory Theater for performances now through Oct. 20. For other reviews, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.