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‘The Perplexed’: Theater Review


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Have you ever been a guest at a noisy affair, a wedding maybe, and longed for a refuge where you could hear yourself think and perhaps engage in some quiet, one-on-one conversation?

Richard Greenberg’s new play, The Perplexed, now receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club, will cure you of that desire. The action takes place in the beautifully appointed library of a fancy Fifth Avenue apartment, as a large wedding is being held in the adjoining ballroom. The door periodically pops open to reveal the loud sounds of excited chatter among the unseen guests, and long before the evening reaches it conclusion, you’ll be wishing you were one them.

In MTC’s typical fashion, lavish care has been expended on this latest work from Greenberg (a Tony winner for 2003’s Take Me Out, receiving a Broadway revival this spring), whose long association with the company includes such plays as Our Mother’s Brief Affair, The American Plan, The Violet Hour and The Assembled Parties, among others. Featuring a terrific cast including several veteran performers, the production boasts scenic design by Santo Loquasto, who has created the sort of incredibly detailed, impossibly gorgeous set that immediately inspires real estate envy.

Alas, all that effort largely comes to naught in a meandering modern-day drawing room comedy that, minus the expletives and explicit references to gay sex, could have been written in the 1950s. Except that theater producers of that era tended to know when a play was suffering from terminal self-indulgence, which, with its glacially paced running time of two-and-a-half hours, this one definitely does.

We’re introduced to 10 characters representing two families, and good luck attempting to quickly figure out who’s who and their various relationships. The nuptials, which for some reason are to take place at midnight after a cocktail reception and dinner, involve twentysomethings Isabelle (Tess Frazer) and Caleb (JD Taylor). Their respective families had a falling out many years earlier, for reasons that, like so much else in the play, go unexplained. Hosting the wedding is Isabelle’s (unseen) elderly grandfather Berland, a slumlord real-estate tycoon.

Guests include Isabelle’s parents Evy (Margaret Colin), a New York City politician whose district’s water mains seem to be bursting at an alarming rate, and Joseph (Frank Wood), who seems vaguely out of it; and Caleb’s folks Natalie (Ilana Levine) and Ted (Gregg Edelman). The latter had a dalliance with Evy decades earlier. There’s also Isabelle’s Uncle James (Patrick Breen), a once-successful novelist whose career has hit the skids; her younger brother Micah (Zane Pais), a medical student moonlighting in gay porn; family friend Cyrus (Eric William Morris), who’s traversed an unusual career path from Wall Street banker to rabbi to teacher; and Patricia (Anna Itty), Berland’s Guyanese home-healthcare aide, who observes the proceedings with bemused detachment.

Audience members are likely to share that detachment, since very little of consequence happens during the course of the lengthy proceedings except talk. Lots and lots of talk. Of course, plays generally consist of little else, but usually the dialogue has the purpose of advancing the plot or providing character definition. Here, it does little of either. The characters, who enter and leave the room as if they were auditioning for a French farce, periodically break off into small groups to engage in quiet, generally pointless conversation, with one or two others sometimes weirdly hovering in the background. It’s hard to tell whether they’re pretending not to listen or the actors are simply being ill-served by Lynne Meadows’ stilted direction.

Greenberg has exhibited a strong facility for witty dialogue in the past, but it largely fails him here. There are a few genuinely funny one-liners, and some mildly amusing scenes, such as Ted revealing a curiosity about Micah’s new profession (“Less pisser than pissoir?” he asks about Micah’s participation in watersports), and the depressed James interrogating Patricia about her indefatigable positive attitude despite being a low-wage healthcare worker. “I want you to be as discontented with your life as I am with mine, because you have every reason to be and I have none,” he tells her. The latter exchange in particular briefly brings life to the play, touching on themes of class differences and immigration that give you an indication of what Greenberg seems to have been striving for.

Unfortunately, such resonant moments are few and far between. Nor do the minor plot developments, including Cyrus’ unrequited love for the much younger bride, and a physical altercation between Joseph and the elderly Berland, have much impact. The latter takes place offstage, which is par for the course for this drama whose few tantalizing elements are barely developed. It all leads to a lighthearted conclusion that seems weirdly out of place with the Chekhovian-style pathos that has largely preceded it.

The lead characters are meant to be Jewish, leading to a sprinkling of Yiddish words like beshert, although much of the casting doesn’t exactly prove convincing in that regard. Despite the unimpeachable efforts of the performers, it feels inauthentic, like everything else about this play, the title of which proves all too prophetic.

Venue: NY City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Patrick Breen, Margaret Colin, Gregg Edelman, Tess Frazer, Anna Itty, Ilana Levine, Eric William Morris, Zane Pais, JD Taylor, Frank Wood
Playwright: Richard Greenberg
Director: Lynne Meadow
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Rita Ryack
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club

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