Thursday, March 5, 2020

177 (2019-2020): Review: THE PERPLEXED (seen March 4, 2020)

“Nattering Nabobs”

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to title a play The Perplexed when it’s inevitable that perplexity will be reflected in the public and critical response. And that’s true of Richard Greenberg’s drawing-room misfire, a two-and-a-half hour talkathon from which a number of attendees departed at the break the night I went. 

Greenberg can be one of our most delightfully urbane light comedy dramatists—a sort of latter-day S.N. Behrman or Philip Barry—as in his The Assembled Parties, produced on Broadway in 2013 by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2013 under the direction of Lynne Meadow. 
Company of The Perplexed. All photos: Matthew Murphy.
Meadow and the MTC are also behind The Perplexed, Off Broadway at the MTC’s City Center Stage 1, where Santo Loquasto has filled the stage with an eye-catching, split-level, Fifth Avenue library-cum-parlor, replete with side rooms leading from a central gathering space that take the eye in multiple, intriguing directions. 
Eric William Morris, Zane Pais.
The play itself gathers its 10 characters around the central premise of a wedding party but, like the set, wanders down multiple paths that seem to go nowhere other than to bloat the lengthy, nearly plotless play with garrulous, too rarely laugh-worthy conversations. Intended to charm by allowing us to listen to ultra-articulate, well-educated, sophisticates discussing their world-weary woes, often in rambling philosophical discourse, it succeeds only in creating a hothouse of petty artificialities that jump from one to another, connected mainly by their shared dyspepsia. 
Margaret Colin, Gregg Edelman.
Driving the loquacity along is the wedding of Isabelle Stahl (Tess Frazer) to Caleb Resnik (JD Taylor), each the offspring of wealthy families engaged in a longstanding feud that, it’s hoped, will subside once the children are wed. 

Lurking in the background, but never seen, is the malign persona of the elderly, ultra-rich Berland Stahl, grandfather of the bride, in whose home the event is occurring. Though never seen, he participates in an offstage battle royal with his son, Joseph (Frank Wood), Isabelle’s father, which provides the principal dramatic event of this desultory play. So much is made of Berland, in fact, that you keep expecting him to make a delayed entrance—like Tartuffe in Molière’s play—but, alas, that never happens.
Margaret Colin, Gregg Edelman, Patrick Breen, Eric William Morris.
Otherwise, each of the characters—most of them upper-class New York Jews—is a nattering nabob disclosing or bloviating about their preoccupations and hang-ups. For example, Micah Stahl (Zane Pais), Isabelle’s brother, “a star med student,” unashamedly talks about his work as a gay porn actor, a potentially scandalous item recently revealed in the press. He openly answers questions from Caleb’s curiously curious lawyer father, Ted (Gregg Edelman), about “water sports,” and whether Micah is “less pisser than pissoir.” 
Gregg Edelman, Ilana Levine, Eric William Morris, Margaret Colin.
Cyrus Bloom (Eric William Morris), a nice-looking southerner, originally a successful banker, became a rabbi, gave that up to become a teacher, and is still searching for his path. Everyone seeks his Talmudic wisdom, while he struggles with his own feelings for Isabelle, over whose marriage he’s been roped into officiating. 

Caleb’s mother, Natalie Hochberg-Resnick (Ilana Levine), is a meddler who prides herself on being a do-gooder, while Isabelle’s mother, Evy Arlen-Stahl (Margaret Colin), a City Council member with aspirations to become Council Speaker, is a card-carrying member of the grammar police. She traipses about in a red dress stained at the bottom from a water main break in her district. Instead of drying, the dress only gets wetter after yet another pipe bursts.
Margaret Colin, Patrick Breen.
The sole nonfamily member is Patricia Persaud (Anna Itty), Berland’s always smiling Guyanese nurse. In an extended colloquy, James Arlen (Patrick Breen), Evy’s disillusioned novelist brother whose literary touch is failing, questions her as to how she can be so happy given the problems faced by dark-skinned foreigners in this strange land. It’s the unassuming Patricia, however, who injects a hint of drama into the proceedings when she declares she’s going to report Joseph for assaulting his father. What could be an inflammatory situation is defused in a questionable way, though, by Caleb, questionable because of its deus ex machina contrivance and because Patricia seems too smart to fall for it.
Margaret Colin, Frank Wood, Ilana Levine, Gregg Edelman.
The Perplexed looks handsome, its cast nicely dressed by Rita Ryack, although one might wonder why Patricia, wearing ordinary professional gear, isn’t more spruced up for so formal an event in the household where she works. Kenneth Posner lights the sprawling set’s nooks and crannies well, also suggesting the oncoming evening through the upstage windows. And the actors go through their paces professionally, if uninspiredly, under Meadow’s assured command.

During the rambling conversations as we listen and try to stay awake, we’re to understand that, just offstage, are all the schmoozing party guests, who, like Berland, never bother to pop a nose into the library. One can only surmise that they read the script beforehand and knew they’d have a better time at the bar.

New York City Center Stage I
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through March 29