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The Right Kind of People

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

I know what you're thinking: The people who live on Fifth Avenue have it good; they never have to worry about being crammed into a dark little shoebox apartment 20 blocks from a train in a neighborhood most charitably described as "up and coming." They have all the money in the world - what could they possibly worry about, right?

Sometimes the grass is just as brown on the other side of the fence. That's the case with the woeful Primary Stages production of The Right Kind of People, which will do even more than your 2006 income tax refund to make you thrill at your personal income bracket.

Charles Grodin's so-called comedy, set entirely in an East Side Fifth Avenue co-op, attempts to prove to us mere, middle-class mortals that, when it comes to eking out a life and a living in New York, the Upper Crust has all the same problems we do. Perhaps. But if my more modest economic sphere means I can avoid barrages of bon mots flatter than week-old champagne, I think I'll survive.

The sole message discernible in Grodin's play, that bigotry and classism pervade all social strata, isn't appreciably fresher, and certainly won't be unfamiliar to anyone who follows American politics. But in any message play, the message must be unavoidable. So when theatre producer Tom Rashman (Robert Stanton) joins the board at his co-op, you're supposed to be stunned and outraged by his fellow members' inherent distrust for black people (their comments are always preceded by declarations like "I'm the least prejudiced person in the world, but...") or those they perceive to be below their class, regardless of wealth (they turn away a gauche Midwestern couple worth hundreds of millions).

And when Robert is courted to join an opposition group planning to oust the current board, you're supposed to see their more accepting, liberal views as the instant solution to everyone's problems. Of course, things don't work out quite that way - at this level, Grodin argues, there are no good guys. After all, as someone says early on, "To live on Fifth Avenue isn't a right, it's a privilege"; the traditional rules simply don't apply here. Outside concerns must be left in the charge of the red-jacketed doorman, even if they're as serious as racism, and even if they apply to Tom's uncle Frank (Edwin C. Owens), who insists especially vocally that he would never, ever behave that way.

The slowly withering relationship between Frank and Tom is supposed to occupy the play's emotional center. But Grodin's camera-ready scenes, many of which last scarcely more than a minute, prevent it or anything else from reaching full bloom; endlessly restated position speeches, half-formed emotions, and continually recycled jokes just don't make for a moving, let alone exciting, evening. Director Chris Smith's pacing, which recalls the show's Fifth Avenue setting at rush hour, never allows the acting corps time to score the succession of quick comic hits that the dialogue needs to play even moderately well. Every scene has the deadening feel of a lull in conversation at a cocktail party.

None of the actors can overcome this. Mitchell Greenberg, as the rogue agent for the opposition group and the original board's sole conscientious voice, seems the closest to a recognizable human being; and Doris Belack does amusing double duty as the most supercilious board member and, later, a prospective tenant emblemizing everything the board at that point would never allow. Otherwise, this is a languid collection of lifeless performances forever in search of an energizing gag or raucous situation that will force the play into hilarity.

That never happens - it would be tough to justify on Annie Smart's generically elegant and couch-heavy set, at any rate, and Grodin likely wouldn't want to take the chance at missing his satirical target. As a program note informs us, he served on exactly this kind of co-op board in the '80s and '90s, and witnessed (or researched) most of what unfolds here. I suppose that does infuse The Right Kind of People with the right kind of verisimilitude.

But that doesn't make it more entertaining. At least to most of us. At the performance I attended, one person in the theater - a well-appointed blonde woman sitting in the row behind me - laughed almost convulsively at practically every line. She was, however, the only one. Did she live on Fifth Avenue, and was thus able to relate to all this in a way the rest of us couldn't? Who knows? She might well be able to convince enough of her well-heeled friends to trek to the 59E59 theaters and thus provide The Right Kind of People with its ideal audience. I'm not going to say everyone else would be wasting their time, but...


The Right Kind of People
Through March 5
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral