It's funny what makes up a family, and in "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," playwright Richard Greenberg pushes the boundaries in a startling direction.
That direction is at the heart of Greenberg's glossy, artificial comedy, which the Roundabout Theatre Company opened Thursday at its American Airlines Theatre.
The secret won't be revealed here, but it causes parents, Bess and Jeffrey, to rethink the scariest words in couples counseling - "commitment" and "love."
The trendy twosome, played by Jill Clayburgh and Richard Thomas, are self-satisfied, upper-class folks. She's a well-known cooking guru who slices and dices such rarified items as edamame, watermelon radishes and patti pan squash. He's a successful, "humanistic" businessman working on a book titled "Business and Art: An Unlikely Interface."
They have a glorious, sunlit home in the Hamptons (designer John Lee Beatty at his extravagant best) and are awaiting the return of two of their three adopted children from an extended stay in Europe.
Greenberg is an astute observer of social and sexual conventions - and the breaking thereof. Witness "Take Me Out," the tale of a gay professional baseball player, and "Eastern Standard," his early tale of wealthy young things in the 1980s, an age of AIDS and a go-go Wall Street.
Yet both plays were buoyed by more fully developed characters. Most of the people in "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" are lightly sketched. Even the considerable star power of Clayburgh and Thomas can't turn the befuddled parents into more than moderately amusing creatures, shaken by the actions of their very different children.
Their kids are an assortment that would do the United Nations proud. Yet two are pretty much ciphers – the Germanic, big lug of a guy (Matthew Morrison), and the commonsensical if bland Juliet (Susan Kelechi Watson), who is Dominican. They are the duo who have been on that long European jaunt, and, unfortunately, the plot turns on them.
Far more interesting is the Asian sibling, the petulant, needy and bisexual Bill, portrayed with hilarious self-absorption by James Yaegashi. He's always been the odd man out and a reconfiguring of family relationships makes him more lonely than ever.
Equally dysfunctional are two visitors from next door. One is a feminist writer (Leslie Ayvazian), author of a late '70s tract called "Stella Suspended" and widow of Martin, who, while no longer alive, gets mentioned quite a bit during the evening.
Greenberg's banter is often pungent, particularly when he puts the second visitor, the curmudgeonly Sadie, at center stage. She is the feminist's mother-in-law, a particularly acerbic lady who doesn't seem to like anyone, particularly the deceased Martin, even though he was her son. In fact, she's written a book called "Against Motherhood." (There are a lot of authors in this play).
As Sadie, the delightful Ann Guilbert, a minor icon from early 1960s television for her portrayal of Millie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," steals every scene she's in.
Director Doug Hughes, the skilled hand behind such plays as "Doubt" and "Frozen," gives the playa stylish spin. But despite its attempt to be provocative about the nature of family, style and spin seem to be what "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" is all about.
When the curtain went up on Richard Greenberg's "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," my heart leapt up. I was entranced by John Lee Beatty's set, the sparkling interior of a grand house in what the script calls "A Hampton."
With its super-modern kitchen, lofty ceiling and huge spaces bathed in sunlight, it seemed a perfect backdrop for a young man all in white to bound through the door grinning and asking, "Anyone for tennis?"
Greenberg, who has written many delightful comedies (like his early one-act "The Author's Voice" and the hilarious monologues about baseball in "Take Me Out"), would be the perfect person to write an updated drawing-room comedy.
What is it they say about answered prayers?
What made such plays theatrical staples for so long was that their authors knew how to balance artificiality with simple sentiment. The characters might be types, but their emotions were real.
In "Appian Way," everything is fake - especially the emotions. Instead of emotional satisfaction, you get shock.
The owners of the house are a middle-aged couple, both of whom are authors. Bess (Jill Clayburgh, returning to Broadway after many years) writes about food, Jeff (Richard Thomas) about money.
They have three adopted children: the sexy Juliet, from the Dominican Republic (Susan Kelechi Watson), an introverted Asian son, Bill (James Yaegashi) and an extroverted Caucasian son, Thad (Matthew Morrison), who is probably expert at tennis but whose sport here is leaping over furniture. (Plot hint: As in other cases, couch-jumping is related to fertility.)
The plot, such as it is, has to do with the siblings' romantic interests and whether, given that they are not blood relatives, their impulses can be considered incestuous.
Two extraneous characters from next door, a woman and her hostile mother-in-law (Leslie Ayvazian and Ann Guilbert), occasionally barge in.
Needless to say, all the surprises, which are supposed to shock us, quickly grow tiresome.
So does the overly rarefied language they all speak, sprinkled with French and full of fancy words at the end of punch lines.
Director Doug Hughes can do nothing to make any of this believable. Part of the charm of old-fashioned drawing-room comedies was their effortlessness. Here everything - except the gorgeous set - is painfully effortful.
Stars in their courses, whether they be a winsome Jill Clayburgh in a charming return or a cheerful Richard Thomas in continuing orbit, rarely affect the ultimate fate of plays - especially ones that make the average TV sitcom look good.
Richard Greenberg's fatuous "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," which opened last night in a beautifully acted and staged Roundabout Theatre production, is the perfect example.
There's virtually nothing wrong with this play except the play itself.
Comedies need some kernel of truth, a nugget of possibility, either in the credibility of characters or the interplay of situation. And, like all drama, they need dialogue that's convincing.
Greenberg offers us Bess Lapin (Clayburgh), an unlikely cookbook writer with her own TV show and an even more unlikely diffident retired business tycoon of a husband, Jeffrey (Thomas).
They are very, very rich and live in a to-die-for gorgeous house in the to-die-for Hamptons. They also have three post-college children - two, as the curtain rises, returning from an 18-month tour of Europe. Surprise: Their sibling love has taken a turn toward the carnal, and they plan to marry.
Incest? Not quite. By now we've gathered that the Lapins' offspring are adopted.
For all its easygoing, old-time hipness, the family is troubled. The third sibling feels especially rejected because he is bisexual.
That's the plot. How will this farrago end? If you'd guess predictably, you'd be right.
Doug Hughes, with his perfect timing and ear for nuance even where it scarcely exists, has staged the play as if it made as much sense as the architectural, unlived-in splendor of John Lee Beatty's setting and the spot-on aptness of Catherine Zuber's costumes.
Clayburgh - her eyes lit up in perpetual amazement of the world's wonders, while her voice tentatively chirps their praise - makes us wonder how we did without her all these years.
Thomas, at 54 (that must be some portrait he's got in his attic!), is her perfect match.
For a play not worth seeing, it's been extraordinarily well done.
Is it possible that the exhaustingly prolific Richard Greenberg has been even busier than anyone suspected? Current evidence suggests that Mr. Greenberg, who has new plays opening at Lincoln Center and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago this season, has been moonlighting as a gag writer for sitcoms. And that he has been hoarding all the one-liners deemed too academic or simply too tired for television and crammed them together into yet another new play.
In outline, "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, does sound alarmingly like a last-ditch pitch for a comedy series by a writer desperate to make back alimony payments. You want a situation? Well, listen to this: A middle-aged pair of married, free-thinking intellectuals find their liberalism sorely tested when their three adopted, grown-up kids come home to roost in the old empty nest. And get this: Each of the kids is from a different race!
No, I'm not done yet. For the roles of the husband and wife, picture Jill Clayburgh and Richard Thomas. That's right, Ms. "Unmarried Woman" and John Boy Walton themselves, except 30 years or so later. And along the way, there will be some flirting with taboos, like lesbianism. Oh, that's not taboo anymore? Well, how about incest, except a kind of incest that won't really offend a mainstream audience? And to keep things lively, we'll throw in a wacky, semi-senile and completely un-self-censoring old broad.
You think you've seen that one before, huh? It's true that "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," directed by Doug Hughes and featuring Ms. Clayburgh (who deserves better) in her first appearance on Broadway in two decades, brings to mind a long, blurred roster of dysfunctional family comedies, from "Soap" to "Arrested Development." It's not just television, either, that has kept extending the genre. Christopher Durang, John Guare, Nicky Silver and, more recently, Paul Weitz have all created toxic comedies of eccentric, unhappy families for the stage.
What makes "Naked Girl," a Roundabout Theater Company production, stand out from the warped domestic pack is its stunning lack of a cohesive style. A sense of disconnectedness pervades everything, from the limping parade of witticisms to the performers' relationships with their roles. Even the title, a reference to a mysterious vision on foreign shores, feels ill at ease with itself, a mixture of 1960's-style continental titillation and literary epiphany.
Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Hughes, both Tony winners and estimable talents, appear to have lost touch with what they do best. The lyricism and all-embracing empathy evident in Mr. Greenberg's "Three Days of Rain" (to be revived on Broadway later this season with Julia Roberts) and "Take Me Out" rarely make an appearance here. The same is true of Mr. Hughes's gifts for guiding actors into solid yet luminous performances, so evident in his work on John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" and Bryony Lavery's "Frozen."
Both of those works were sober, probing examinations of the nature of sin and the limits of moral judgment. It could be argued (by the kindhearted) that "Naked Girl" considers the same subjects in a lighter vein. Its central quandary (to call it a plot would be stretching things) arises when Thad (Matthew Morrison) and Juliet (Susan Kelechi Watson) return to their adoptive parents' cozy home in the Hamptons from a European wanderjahr with a shocking announcement.
The news forces their brilliant and open-minded parents - Bess (Ms. Clayburgh), a cookbook author and television personality, and Jeffrey (Mr. Thomas), an innovative business consultant - to wonder, perhaps for the first time, just where they went wrong in child rearing. Matters are complicated by the arrival of a jealous third sibling, Bill (James Yaegashi), and the occasional, plot-propelling interruptions of Elaine, the feminist author next door (Leslie Ayvazian), and Sadie, her crazy mother-in-law (Ann Guilbert).
So far, so prime time, right? What slightly skews "Naked Girl" away from basic television fare is its characters' professions, affluence (John Lee Beatty's multiwindowed set reeks of casual Hamptons hauteur), educations and penchants for historical name-dropping. (Juliet and Bill spar over the dates of the Antinomian controversy of the 17th century; the prolixity of Henry James is used for a punch line.)
But in tone, the dialogue is sub-"Everybody Loves Raymond." Jeffrey on his dietary habits: "After 'Babe,' I couldn't eat pork for a day." Bess on writing a cookbook: "I didn't know beans about edamame." Bill on feeling excluded by his brother and sister: "I'm bisexual. I've been rejected twice." Winking, politically incorrect zingers fly among the three siblings, since Juliet and Bill are of Dominican and Asian extraction, respectively, while Thad is a cute Aryan lug.
For such dialogue to pass as wit, it must swoop and flutter blithely, then evaporate before anyone has a chance to think about it. Mr. Morrison (the Italian love interest from "The Light in the Piazza") brings surprisingly original charm to the increasingly familiar role of male bimbo. (I'm waiting for the gender-reversed "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.") But most of the cast combines leaden intensity with comic archness, a poisonous mix.
Mr. Thomas is an excellent dramatic actor of the species that can't say "hello" without gale-force passion. This does not suit the role of a perpetually abstracted genius. Similarly, Bess is meant to be dithery and discombobulated, a part made for Diane Keaton. Ms. Clayburgh, though a warm and attractive maternal presence here, is by nature too trenchant and focused. When this couple go wandering in clouds of vagueness, you feel they are only pretending, though the urge to escape is understandable.
Hope dies young in "Naked Girl." For me, rigor mortis set in when Sadie, the foul-mouthed little old lady, entered not knowing she was in the wrong house. Still, out of the mouth of unbearable clichés, wisdom sometimes emerges. It's Sadie who, stumbling into Bess and Jeffrey, asks the burning question of this production: "Who are you people? What do you think you're doing here?"
Richard Greenberg's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way (* * * out of four), which opened Thursday at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre, isn't likely to inspire as much controversy, or as much hyperbolic praise. That's in part because the taboo this time isn't as off-putting as bestiality, but it also is because Greenberg, who earned a best-play Tony for 2003's Take Me Out, seems motivated more to entertain than to shock, enlighten or admonish us.
Like Goat, Naked Girl focuses on a smart, happily married couple whose open-minded and progressive instincts are tested by a sudden revelation. Bess Lapin, a cookbook author, and her businessman husband, Jeff, are devoted both to each other and to their three twentysomething adopted children: Bill, who is of Japanese descent; Thaddeus, who is white; and the dark-skinned Juliet, whose heritage is Dominican.
As the play opens, Bess and Jeff are preparing to welcome Juliet and Thaddeus back from a European sojourn. What follows is an affectionate sendup of baby-boomer idealism, tinged with elements of sharper satire but offering the perspective that peace, love and understanding are not just pie-in-the-sky goals.
Jill Clayburgh and Richard Thomas imbue Bess and Jeff with effortless warmth and wit. Matthew Morrison is beguilingly guileless as the sweetly dopey Thaddeus, while Susan Kelechi Watson and James Yaegashi amuse as the sensible Juliet and wry, self-pitying Bill. John Lee Beatty's scrumptious set makes the Lapins' home especially inviting. You'll enjoy their hospitality, even if you leave their gathering a little confused.