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Dan Cody's Yacht

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - June 6, 2018

Rick Holmes, Jordan Lage, Meredith Forlenza,
Kristen Bush, and Laura Kai Chen
Photo by Joan Marcus

When did you last see a new play where at the end of Act One you thought, hmm, I'm not sure, then at the end of Act Two you thought, Wow? It's probably been a while, since most new plays don't even have second acts. And when was the last play where a short two-person scene yielded enthusiastic applause—not of the character-yells-a-speech-and-dramatically-exits sort, just a quiet thing so well played and well written that it surprised the audience, and deserved a hand?

Such a play is Dan Cody's Yacht, by Anthony Giardina, whose The City of Conversation a few seasons back was similarly dense, tense, literate, and able to comment intelligently on modern American life without taking overt sides. Don't get the literary allusion in the title? Neither did I, but Giardina reminds us quickly, in the first scene. We're in a high school classroom in 2014 in a tony Boston suburb, where Cara (Kristen Bush), a smart English teacher, is having a conference with Kevin (Rick Holmes), a well-heeled money manager who's asking about the F she gave his son on a paper about The Great Gatsby. Dan Cody, you may now recall (I didn't), is a minor character in Fitzgerald who gives the young Jay Gatz his first glimpse of a better life and sets him off on that American path to success that includes ambition, diligence, corruption, exploitation of others, and moral compromise. These, it turns out, are what Dan Cody's Yacht is about. Also parent-child conflicts, purity of self-image, and quite a few other things that spill out into its nearly two and a half hours.

It's a heavily expository first scene, and so is most of the first act, which is why the play takes a while to jell. Kevin—who, in Holmes's astute rendering, is a contradictory mass of calculation, charm, good and bad intentions, and both pride and disgust in crossing over from childhood poverty into the good life—wants Cara to join his informal investment group. She's a struggling single parent and feels guilty about raising Angela (Casey Whyland) in the less-good school district across the river. Angela shows promise as a poet, and an upcoming vote may combine the two school districts, allowing disadvantaged kids like her to study alongside privileged kids like Conor (John Kroft), Kevin's unambitious slacker offspring. Kevin's dead set against the merger, Cara's all for it, and he strategizes about getting her to change her mind (she's an influential board member) and make enough money for her to help her cross the Charles into his much wealthier suburb.

It's a lot to take in, but Giardina, as in The City of Conversation, skillfully keeps us entertained while laying the groundwork for the Act Two payoffs. After some diverting cat-and-mouse between Cara and Kevin, and Cara's cocktail talk about him with her best friend Cathy (Roxanna Hope Radja), she takes hm up on the offer. Now we're in his designer living room (John Lee Beatty did the clever sets, which roll around on a revolve), where Cara's trying to keep up with the conversation and imagine a better existence for herself, while Kevin and his prosperous cohorts—Geoff (Jordan Lage), Pamela (Meredith Forlenza), and Alice (Laura Kai Chen)—rattle off potential investments, some of them morally questionable. Do you want to make money, and do you care about adverse sociological side effects if you do? The play's about that, too.

Giardina's dialogue is both heightened and natural, with these very bright people (except Conor, and even he gets off some good ones) arguing, interrupting, thinking faster and speaking more polished sentences than they would in real life, but conveying in every line who they are and what they want. The Boston-area setting and haves-vs.-have-nots skirmishes may remind you of David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, but Dan Cody's Yacht feels less black-and-white to me, and more willing to explore the virtue and vice in all of us, regardless of social and economic standing.

There are some odd filigrees to Giardina's writing. If Kevin is, as he says, a gay single parent, why would this attractive, engaging, successful man appear to have no love life whatever? Why do Geoff and Pamela disappear after one scene? What are we to make of Cara's drinking problem, which she dismisses as, "I don't have a drinking problem, I like to drink"? But there's also much brilliance. Listen to Cara, in Bush's subtle portrayal, start to sound more like Kevin as she envisions a life more like his. Note how Kevin's appreciation of his own talent is tempered by a vague resentment—has he sold his soul, and does he care? And observe how well Giardina writes intergenerational confrontations—one, between Kevin and Angela, in a Starbucks, is the one that garnered the applause.

In a cast without a weak link, Casey Whyland's Angela stands out—a smart young lady, aware of her strengths and limitations, hesitant to dream about a more advantaged life that seems unobtainable. Her silent reactions in that scene with Kevin, where he says something hurtful that hits hard, are still in my head. Chalk it up to Doug Hughes, whose direction, as usual, cultivates a wealth of character detail without being showy about it.

After several days, I'm still not sure whether I like Kevin, or Cara for that matter, and I think that's a testament to Giardina's finely shaded writing, In his complicated universe, there are no utterly good or bad guys. He could have, perhaps, compressed some of the first-act financial chatter and developed his supporting characters more. But, like Kevin, he's talking a good game to set up some large rewards.

Dan Cody's Yacht
Through July 8
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
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