A Naked Girl on the Appian Way by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Doug Hughes. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Cast: Jill Clayburgh, Richard Thomas, with Matthew Morrison, Susan Kelechi Watson, James Yaegashi, Leslie Ayvazian, Ann Guilbert.
Soap operas have nothing on the Lapin family. The members of the intrepid Hamptons brood and their neighbors, all at the center of Richard Greenberg's new play, A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, must cope with crises and couplings twistier than your average corkscrew, often without the mildly pleasant intoxication that device can help bestow.
But if you find yourself drunk with laughter while watching this play at the American Airlines, know that this binge will only result in a hangover. If Greenberg were only interested in telling an entertaining story of a well-to-do family's mixed-up relationships, he'd probably have succeeded decently enough. But his real goal is to examine and promote the pursuit of love wherever you can find it, and he doesn't achieve that as successfully.
For Greenberg, the choice to examine the extent to which traditional ideas of brotherly love can be pushed must make sense. After all, with the gay marriage controversy still raging, questions of who can love whom and who can marry whom are never far from the headlines. And, as he demonstrated in Take Me Out (and his much earlier Eastern Standard), he has a strong facility for addressing society's current views on sex and sexuality in numerous forms.
But it's possible to go overboard with topicality, and Greenberg manages it here. He's made the Lapins so emotionally and sexually confused that their words and actions qualify them less for Days of Our Lives than The Jerry Springer Show. One can even imagine the tawdry treatment they'd receive: "And now, an interracial adopted brother and sister declare they're in love and want to get married. Here are Thad and Juliet Lapin!"
Yes, it's a bombshell when the two twentysomethings (Matthew Morrison and Susan Kelechi Watson) return from their extensive European tour to announce their feelings and intentions to parents Bess and Jeffrey (Jill Clayburgh and Richard Thomas). Is this unacceptable? Not as Thad and Juliet see it: "This is so not incest," insists Juliet after sending her mother into shock and father into an asthma attack; "There are many different kinds of love," rings another protestation, of roughly equivalent originality and lyricism.
Your reaction to the show as a whole will mostly depend on your feelings about this subject. The situation's weirdness does escalate further - especially with the introduction of Thad and Juliet's other brother, the chronically insecure Bill (James Yaegashi), and various reappearances of next-door neighbor Elaine (Leslie Ayvazian) and her foul-mouthed mother-in-law Sadie (Ann Guilbert) - but much additional explanation would spoil the play's other surprises, and if you aren't yet offended, nothing else will do the trick.
That's not to say that Greenberg and director Doug Hughes don't try: By the final scene, they've pulled so many strings of unexpected plot developments and toppled so many card houses of moral impropriety that there are no further heights to which they can ascend (or, perhaps, depths to which they can descend). This makes the play's writing, pacing, and effectiveness all fizzle out just when they should most sizzle; in tackling too many taboos, Greenberg and Hughes provide too much of what might otherwise be a good thing.
Even if Greenberg had restrained his urges to tangle up the Lapins in some new knot every five minutes, problems with the dialogue would likely remain. In trying to define this upper-class family beset by the lowest-class problems they could envision, Greenberg so muddles their language that no one sounds real. They come across instead as robotic (Bess and Sadie, albeit in very different ways), confused (Jeffrey), unconvincingly hyper-erudite (Bill), unconvincingly doltish (Thad), or impenetrable (Juliet and Elaine); they fire off quips or nuggets of insight, but can never cohere into human beings.
Due to all this, it's unsurprising that no one completely connects with his or her character. Morrison and Guilbert come closest, but "dumb jock" and "bitchy old broad" aren't exactly taxing acting challenges. Yaegashi is moderately effective, but his stilted line readings don't help endear us to someone who's supposed to be a lovable perpetual victim. About Watson and Ayvazian no determination can be made - they both come across as little more than bland ciphers, monotonously going through their meandering motions.
Clayburgh and Thomas, however, seem especially uncomfortable, and who can blame them? It's never possible to believe her as a top-stratum celebrity chef, or him as an international wheeler-dealer who spends his spare time writing about art's humanization of business; she's too pointlessly fussy, he's too neurotic and asthmatic. Their sunny, gorgeously appointed home (the impressive work of the often impressive John Lee Beatty) only highlights these discrepancies.
This is at least partially Greenberg's point, that the walls we build or destroy around us say more about who we are than our actions, and are our only real barriers to happiness. And indeed, as everyone becomes more open-minded and accepting of everyone's idiosyncrasies, enough contentedness can descend on everyone to help free them to live, love, and laugh.
Not that the latter is ever a real problem, for them or for us; many lines here rank as far up the scale of funny as some in Take Me Out did on the scale of baseball patriotic. "Would you rather we were smokers?", "As in Harbor?", and (especially) "Can I be alone with my brother for a little while?" are just three subversive roof-raisers; there are easily a dozen others. But while laughter can certainly be the best medicine, it alone isn't enough of a shot in the arm for A Naked Girl on the Appian Way.