A disturbing play — House of Gold at Atwater

Director Gates McFadden tries to create alchemy with Gregory Moss’ disturbing play House of Gold, but unfortunately it remains a leaden theatrical work. Odd, disquieting and even sickening at times, Moss’ play is marred by lazy and disjointed storytelling.

For his surreal study of modern childhood, Moss took inspiration from the still unsolved murder – and ensuing media frenzy – of child beauty pageant star JonBenét Ramsay. In 1996 the 6-year-old’s tiny lifeless body was found on Christmas Day in the Colorado basement of her family home. Since then the mysterious circumstances of this ghastly and sordid crime continues to mesmerize and titillate the public. At the time, the media described her as “a painted baby, a sexualized toddler beauty queen.” Its main legacy was to introduce the public at large to the mysterious and disturbing world of kiddie beauty pageants.

Moss contrasts the upbringing of two children; one, a bullied and neglected teen boy (Alex Davis) and the other, a little girl who is being prepped and groomed for beauty pageants (Jacqueline Wright). As stipulated in Moss’ play, McFadden has not cast any child actors. Rather, the two younger parts are both played by adults. While this casting approach does lend a welcome element of Brechtian detachment to the play, an autopsy scene went too stomach-churningly far for this critic.

But by naming his central female character JonBenét (once she’s even called her full name, JonBenét Ramsay) Moss expects us to fill in the gaps in his one act play and bring what we know about her to the experience.

What’s missing is the motivation of JonBenét’s Mother (the character is called ‘Woman’ and played by Denise Crosby) – that manic passion for a crown that seems to drive a lot of these pageant mothers who are frantically living through their tiny children. We never gain a true sense of her creepy obsession nor desperation.

Wright is good at evoking the awkwardness of a small girl eager to please the adults she encounters, but she chose to play her childish role as if JonBenét was mentally challenged (reminiscent of the oversized man-boy character Stewart from the MadTV sketch comedy show).

McFadden does a great job with the creative staging and injecting bursts of energy from time to time, but it’s hard to understand why she chose to stage such a fragmented and elusive play. Drew Christie’s distinctive animation, cartoons and ethereal video projections add a haunting element.


Production photos by Thom Bertelsen.


House of Gold

Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA

in the Atwater Village Theatre complex

3269 Casitas Ave

Los Angeles, CA 90039

On-site parking is free. 



Runs through December 4, 2011

Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm

Sundays at 2 pm and 7pm.

Running time:

Approximately 95 minutes, no intermission


$25.00  ($20.00 for Students and Seniors)

NOTE: Sundays @ 2:00 PM are Pay-What-You-Can Performances at the door — pay with cash the day of the performance.  (All credit card purchases will be charged full price.) These performances include: Oct. 30, Nov. 6, 13, 20, 27  and Dec. 4.

Box Office:

Purchase tickets here

or call (323) 644-1929

The box office is open from 12-4pm Tuesday-Friday and again one hour before showtime.

There is a $3.00 surcharge for credit card purchases at the door.


Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek is a Los Angeles-based arts enthusiast with twenty-five years' experience covering International Film Festivals and reviewing new Theatre, Film and Restaurants.


  • I could not disagree with this review more. The performance of Wright was a brilliant act of suspended disbelief. Wright not only brought us joy with her child’s abandon, trust and vulnerability, but the physical fact that she is a forty-something year old woman reminded us again and again of what JonBenet Ramsay would never become: adult.

    The use of simplistic, primary colored multi-media brought the element of television and voyeurism to the play in a riveting, annoying way. You couldn’t look away, the screens were everywhere, just as the Ramsay murder case was everywhere.

    The only weak spot in the show was the choreography of the jock bullies, which would have been much more interesting had they been abstracted, ala Sharks and Jets. The clumsiness of their chaos seemed out of place in this tightly drawn puzzle piece collection of a play and the sub-story of the bullied child itself was in itself odd.

    One mistake was made that I found unforgivable and that was to have Wright’s character address the audience as an adult for her last monologue. To ask us to suspend disbelief and follow an adult actress into a child’s role only to break that agreement at the very end bothered me. It was so jarring, I missed most of the monologue trying to adjust my set.

    Overall, the show was great. The right time, the right direction and conception, the right actress to carry it. Having never seen an EST show, I will certainly go back for more.

  • Hi — thank you for such a thoughtful comment. Wright did give a great performance, but I question the slightly ‘spastic’ approach to her characterization. I agree with you that the jock bullies could have used a little more delineation.

    I think we both agree the play itself was flawed in many respects, but the production strove for artistic and dramatic heights.


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