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The Perplexed

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 3, 2020

Margaret Colin, Frank Wood, Ilana Levine,
and Gregg Edelman

Photo by Matthew Murphy
A society wedding comedy. When did we last see one of those? The Pleasure of His Company? The Happiest Millionaire? The Philadelphia Story, for heaven's sake? This polite genre thrived a half-century-plus ago, titillating the masses with the foibles of the upper crust and encouraging those actually in the top one percent to laugh at themselves. And here comes Richard Greenberg with The Perplexed, his attempt at Manhattan Theatre Club to revive it. Unfortunately, his well-meaning effort serves mainly to remind us why it hasn't been around for decades. These debonair individuals aren't easy for us schlubs to identify with, and their problems are neither that acute nor that compelling.

It doesn't help that we never get to meet Berland Stahl, the most interesting of the bunch. He's hosting the wedding party offstage right in the ballroom of a humongous Fifth Avenue apartment, and the other characters can't stop talking about this callous, insensitive, mega-rich nonagenarian, or hating him. They enter and exit in a timely fashion, in the well-worn manner of drawing room comedy. Only we're not in a drawing room. It's the library, and Santo Loquasto's set is absolutely stunning.

Who wouldn't want to live here? Bi-level and roomy, with elegant furniture and first editions and cozy anterooms and a lavish upstage balcony, it's "the library a decorator buys whole at an estate sale," says one character, in one of many failed Greenberg epigrams. That's James (Patrick Breen), uncle of the bride, a successful but fading novelist who lives to quip. As does Ted (Gregg Edelman), father of the groom who's married to Natalie (Ilana Levine), who's scatterbrained but charitable, into multiple causes, a benevolent busybody. Then there's Joseph (Frank Wood), father of the bride, sad and alcoholic and scattered; his wife Evy (Margaret Colin), James's sister, politically active, dissatisfied, easily mortified, always correcting others' syntaxes; Caleb (JD Taylor), the groom, likable and seemingly not that bright, but with a couple of aces up his sleeve; Isabelle (Tess Frazer), the bride, who preens and keeps conversations going and not much else; her brother Micah (Zane Pais), pre-med but also with a recent blossoming career in gay porn, an excuse for Greenberg to make some tired sex jokes; and Cyrus (Eric William Morris), a handsome fortyish banker-turned-rabbi-turned-teacher-poet, a Southern gentleman who never quite stopped desiring Isabelle. Also making periodic appearances: Patricia (Anna Itty), Berland's nurse, a warm and practical Guyanese lady whose contentment in relative poverty provides a marked contrast to all the unhappy rich Jews about her.

What are they unhappy about? The state of the world, and the conflicts and lawsuits between the two families, exacerbated and encouraged by Berland's machinations, and unconsummated past loves. And do they ever blather about all of the above. Greenberg's into pointed observations couched in lofty language. James: "I'm just so sick of crucifying meaning for the sake of a detached style." Evy: "Vengefulness is just another kind of porn, first it deadens then it incites." Joseph: "How do you render justice unto a man who can't even identify his petard mid-hoist?" See how talky this thing is?

Eric William Morris and Zane Pais
Photo by Matthew Murphy
There are good scenes among the gab-athon: a doleful soliloquy for Joseph, superbly rendered by Wood; a couple of we-almost-had-it-didn't-we exchanges among failed past lovers; and an extended exchange between Patricia and James on, well, essentially, money can't buy happiness, nor does lack of money necessarily prevent it. Meantime, Cyrus and Natalie and Joseph are all struggling to prepare wedding ceremony remarks, allowing numerous scenes of characters sitting on chairs scribbling on legal pads. The staging, by Lynne Meadow, is curiously lazy: The script contains character reactions ("James knows he's absurd, even mocks himself a little as he speaks, but he also means what he can't stop saying") I don't see onstage. And I'm no director, but even I know you don't put two characters upstage in chairs reading magazines for minutes at a time unless you have a very good reason.

Greenberg's plot machinations do lumber their way toward a satisfactory resolution, though he takes some odd side trips to get there, including a water main break, a traffic accident that decapitated a bike messenger, an old man's dick pic, and Micah's Aunt Sheilah, who left the family and the religion to become Sister Thomas. And there are amusing asides amid the grinding of the plot gears, though this is a play that could easily lose a fifth of its two-and-a-half-hour running time; the script runs to 200 pages. It's a big production for MTC's Stage 1, and beyond Loquasto's gorgeous set, there are Rita Ryack's character-appropriate designer fashions, Kenneth Posner's handsome spring-evening lighting, and Fitz Patton's apt sound design, which consists mainly of the ballroom-crowd buzz that erupts every time the library double doors open.

Greenberg appears to know this privileged lot well, and there are pleasures to be had simply from so much civilized, literate discourse, as if Philip Barry or Samuel Taylor rose from their graves to comment on Trump and Hollywood rom-coms and golden showers. But it's hard not to wonder why such fortunate, wealthy individuals can't stop kvetching, or why the source of most of their mishegas must remain offstage—wouldn't Berland be a swell part for Alan Arkin, say, or Alan Alda. Greenberg's treading water here, bringing up epigrammatic existential malheureuses we don't really want to hear. He'll do better next time; he's a fine playwright, and one of his best, Take Me Out, is just about to warm up at Second Stage. Go see that.

The Perplexed
Through March 29, 2020
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center (Between 6th and 7th Avenue), New York NY
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