First Nighter: A. Rey Pamatmat's Two-Families Drama "House Rules," Peter Mills Teams With Long-Gone Carlo Gesualdo in "Death for Five Voices"

04/04/2016 11:00 am ET Updated Apr 05, 2017

Why deal with one dysfunctional family when you can handle two? A. Rey Pamatmat apparently considered the question and decided there was no reason to stick to a limit. Hence House Rules, empathetically directed by Ralph B. Pena at HERE, in which Vera (Mia Katigbak) and feuding daughters Momo (Tiffany Villarin) and Twee (Tina Chilip) and Ernie (Jojo Gonzalez) and sons Rod (James Yaegashi), and JJ (Jeffrey Omura) not only cross paths because they live in the same apartment complex but because Momo and Rod are physicians on staff at the same hospital where Ernie is slowly recovering from a stroke.

Lots of coincidences then keep the Filipino-American families quarreling with each other while also frequently catering to each other's needs. Shuffled into the mix is Henry (Conrad Schott), Rod's boyfriend and yet another physician. When he dumps Rod for obscure reasons and when the unsettled Twee begins a romance with cartoonist JJ, things heat up much further.

Pamatmat clearly believes the family that fights intramurally together eventually comes right together and demonstrates the conviction sharply. The playwright presents the characters in crisp three dimensions so that the audience understands and pulls for them no matter how unpleasantly they behave among themselves before breaking through. The message not necessarily hew but carefully served here is that familial love isn't easy, and neither is romantic love.

Every one of the players does commendably by the taut script and on Reid Thompson's attractive set that includes parts of two living rooms, a hospital bed with shielding curtain and a hospital corridor. Well done by all.
*********************
Songwriter Peter Mills has long deserved to be far better known than he is. Perhaps he isn't as a result of committing himself to the Prospect Theater Company, which he founded with director Cara Reichel. Together, they've presented any number of strong musical pieces over the past couple of decades that also should be better known.

Here's the latest, and it couldn't be in bigger contrast with The Honeymooners, the tuner featuring Mills's lyrics and supposedly bringing him to Broadway next season. He and Reichel call the current production Death for Five Voices, and for it Mills has added words to the music of aristocratic 15th-16th-century composer Carlo Gesualdo, who may be best known for murdering his wife and her lover and getting away with it under the old crime passionel justification. That Carlo was acquainted with bishops, cardinals and popes didn't hurt his dicey situation.

It's Mills's and Reichel's notion to tell the sordid tale and many incidents leading up to it by way of Gesualdo's music. Incidentally, the man was partial to madrigals. Much of the Mills-Reichel contrivances are quite beautiful, especially as sung by Nathan Gardner as the committed (in more ways than one?) composer, Manna Nichols as loving yet philandering wife Maria D'Avalos, Nicholas Rodriguez as family friend and Maria's lover Fabrizio Carafa, Meghan McGeary as waspish mother Gesualdo, L. R Davidson as lady-in-waiting Sylvia Albano, Jeff Williams as rising clergyman Alfonzo Gesualdo and Ryan Bauer-Walsh as manservant Pietro Marziale.

One of the mesmerizing Death for Five Voices features is the frequent quintet-plus harmonizing. Max Mamon conducts the four-piece band. The elegant set, on which many shelves holding thick white candles are prominent, is by Ann Bartek, and Sidney Shannon took care of the beautiful period costumes.

Death for Five Voices, which is at the Sheen Center, does go on longer than it needs to while making its macabre point, but without doubt it's far enough off the beaten musicals track to be recommended.