Bob Saget the Serious Actor will forever struggle to escape from the shadow of Bob Saget the Television Comedian. One can easily understand why, after making his name and career starring in Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos, Saget might like to move on to something more challenging.
On the surface, Paul Weitz's Privilege, which just opened at Second Stage, would seem to be the perfect vehicle for this. Saget, in sinking his teeth into the role of Ted, a wealthy investor accused of insider trading who watches his life spiral out of control when the authorities catch up to him, could allow him to demonstrate his true acting chops. He'd have no end of opportunities to convey the hope, the despair, the resignation, with even - just maybe - a hint of comedy underneath it all.
But rather than prove the range and depth of his talents, Saget instead suggests that perhaps he really is as limited a performer as his TV work would suggest. Looking like a reject from an accountant factory (wearing a nondescript blue suit from costume designer Jeff Mahshie and a Rick Moranis haircut-and-glasses combo befitting the play's 1987 setting), Saget's Ted is all artifice, with his work and his family alike. That may be intended as commentary on the perceived greediness of the 1980s or even the more recent age of Enron, but it just registers as a flat, uninspired acting choice.
So even the more common moments in the life of this not-quite-common criminal ring false throughout. A second act scene in which Ted tries to teach his two sons Charlie (Conor Donovan) and Porter (Harry Zittel) to make their beds, is the kind of thing Saget did for years on Full House, generating at least a modicum of amusement; here, it's forced and overplayed to the point of humorlessness. At another point, when he tells his wife Anna (Carolyn McCormick) about the perilous state of the family's finances, it's similarly difficult to take Ted seriously; Saget's contorted facial expressions seem to be cueing recorded applause that's simply not forthcoming.
Not that Weitz's script, despite being filled with dialogue and situations roughly at the level of sophistication with which Saget should be comfortable, at all helps. It does eschew the temptation to get everything wrapped up in a Very Special 30 minutes (the play runs two hours), but it so often dips into the sitcom milieu for inspiration that it never achieves any depth as either a story or a character study.
It's also ineffective as social commentary, with Weitz cooking down the complex troubles of a turbulent decade into a flavorless dramatic reduction. The threat of Communism is only important as fodder for punch lines; President Reagan's face on a dart board is the only indication of the American political landscape; and class issues are explored (and only obliquely) through the presence of Erla (Florencia Lozano), the family's Hispanic maid. Sound designer Lewis Flinn best evokes the decade with his pre-show musical selections, which include The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" and Madonna's "Material Girl."
Weitz's one right move is telling the story through the eyes of Porter and Charlie, whose lives will be most severely affected by Ted's transgressions. Both children begin the play bored with their life of extravagance, but aren't prepared for having to work for what they want or reevaluating the course of their future. Zittel and Donovan play their characters equally well both early and later, with Donovan especially convincing as the father-worshipping son who loses a lot more than lifetime financial security.
McCormick and Lozano are basically relegated to reacting to the men around them, though they do solidly professional if unexceptional work. Much the same can be said of director Peter Askin, who efficiently guides the play from start to finish, but never elucidates any greater, more universal themes that Weitz might be attempting to communicate. Tom Lynch's set, which displays two very different kinds of bedrooms for the rich kids and the not-so-rich kids, sums everything up in the simplest possible terms.
That's a good thing, because Weitz's overall message is, as presented here, ambiguous. Pick your moral: Rich people reap what they sow, crooks deserve what's coming to them, one can be morally bankrupt even when one's bank account is full. Whatever Weitz's point with this not-stagey-enough sitcom play being led by a not-stagey-enough sitcom actor, sitting through Privilege isn't much of a privilege: You can see much the same thing at home on television, and there you can change the channel.