Richard Greenberg's "Eastern Standard" is an object lesson in the limits of chic.
The play raises all the hot issues of the day - homelessness, AIDS, yuppie greed - but subjects them to what one of the characters calls "a reflex for belittlement."
As he has shown in such one-acts as "The Author's Voice," Greenberg is a man of considerable wit. If his characters and plot matched his trenchant observations, he might be a valuable playwright.
In "Eastern Standard," however, the characters are synthetic, merely vehicles for his wit. Often the wit is pungent and sharp, as when an artist describes certain of his contemporaries as "the cutting edge of the passe."
Just as often, it is strained, as when the same man says, "Cabs make me feel triumphant. I sometimes feel like hailing one from inside one."
Though it raises serious issues, most of the time the stage is full of people standing and grinning the way you do when you're being polite listening to someone else's clever remark, waiting impatiently to make your own.
At one point, the artist uses the phrase "a paradise of my own cleverness." Paradise may not be the right word.
The play was presented two months ago at the Manhattan Theater Club, where it was wildly overpraised. When its limited run was sold out, it was moved to Broadway. It officially opened last night.
By contrast to two months ago, the performances are less mannered, though Dylan Baker, as a conscience-stricken architect, has too diffuse a character to do much with except a lot of cute posturing.
Peter Frechette, who has most of Greenberg's best material, gives a performance of astonishing polish and strength.
Patricia Clarkson is again highly poised as a young stockbroker torn between the not very compelling architect and an offstage character, a Wall Street Machiavelli considerably more interesting than anyone onstage.
Kevin Conroy again seems uneasy playing a man valiantly concealing the fact he has AIDS. Barbara Garrick handles the annoying role of the actress-waitress well, as does Anne Meara in a confusingly written depiction of a bag lady.
In a dry season, I guess you have to encourage anything that even shows promise. "Eastern Standard" is the work of a young writer who is entitled to make mistakes and grow.
Moving as unfinished a play as this to Broadway puts him at the mercy of the cocktail party crowd, who laugh knowingly at the mere mention of "late DeKooning." But they can only go for the next two weeks, while it's still "smart."
As a purveyor of delicacies to the carriage trade, Greenberg's stock is not broad enough to interest us sharp Cheddar types, and his Brie isn't really all that runny.
Off-Broadway review - "Eastern Standard" transferred to the John Golden theatre on January 5, 1989.
Richard Greenberg's play "Eastern Standard," which last night officially opened the Manhattan Theater Club's Stage I season, is a landscape without figures. This is a fine condition for a landscape but not so good for a play.
Greenberg, who earlier wrote "The Maderati" staged at Playwrights Horizons, imagines (at least I imagine he imagines) that he has written a play of social consciousness, a consciousness artfully disguised with a high gloss patina of wit, rather in the ironic tradition of Shaw. He hasn't.
He takes attitudes on social issues - namely the curse of homelessness and the scourge of AIDS - but no real positions. Obviously he considers both of them bad things not amenable to simplistic answers. This is not surprising.
But perhaps the play's real defect is that the apologies for characters that Greenberg has devised for the play's outlandish situations are cut-out puppets wired for the sound of cracks that may initially seem wise but prove hollow.
His writing is far from untalented. Indeed it has many very promising moments of style and humor, plus a sense of the ridiculous that could one day stand him in good stead.
But, here, contrivance has overtaken credibility to such an extent that the dialog rattles along with a superficial smartness and lack of conviction that it confuses cheek with chic.
There are two couples. A woman Wall Street broker (Patricia Clarkson), caught up in a scandal when her sometime lover gets indicted on an insider trading scam, falls in love with an adoring, rich, dopey architect (Dylan Baker), tired of molesting New York's skyline with hair-raising, high-rising office blocks that few need and fewer want.
Then there is his friend (Peter Frechette), a gay painter, who looks and talks as if he is putting down cars on those TV mock sneer-commercials, but is really the hottest thing in hot pants since Julian Schnabel.
He tidily falls in love with the broker's brother (Kevin Conroy), a TV producer of liberal bent, who is also in love with him, but dare not say so as he has tested positive for AIDS.
The couples both meet for the first time at a restaurant, a meeting occasioned by a scene made by a homeless woman (Anne Meara) trying to have a glass of Perrier but quarrelling with the waitress (Barbara Garrick) on the way to the second act.
In that second act, the architect has taken a sabbatical from architecture, the broker has taken a sabbatical from broking, the painter has a painter's block, the TV producer is resting, and they are all living at the architect's handsome beachside summer home, where they invite, as some kind of social experiment in kindliness, the waitress and the homeless woman.
What happens is not unduly interesting. The set-up is all. Suffice it to say that it all ends happily except for the homeless woman, who gets shafted, and the guy with AIDS who, despite his new and understanding friend, presumably dies.
The setting by Philipp Jung and Candice Donnelley are both attractive, and the play is directed by Michael Engler, who staged the play's premiere at the Seattle Repertory Theater last spring.
Here I think something may have gone wrong. I know the work of most of these actors, and I have never seen, for example, Baker and Meara give such poor, over-routined performances.
I suspect Engler confuses style in acting with mannerism in behavior and he has his entire cast almost twitching in their eager histrionics.
Not at all a good evening, but a perplexing one because with massive re-writes, even more massive re-thinks and an almost equally massive restaging, "Eastern Standard" might have been far more involved and involving than it was. But I guess it's just not a massive play.
Off-Broadway review - "Eastern Standard" transferred to the John Golden theatre on January 5, 1989.
In ''Eastern Standard,'' his new play at the Manhattan Theater Club, Richard Greenberg captures the romantic sophistication of the most sublime comedies ever made in this country: those produced by Hollywood from the middle of the Depression until the waning days of World War II.
Mr. Greenberg's characters have youth, brains, money and classy professions. Their last names - Wheeler, Paley, Kidde - are redolent of Philip Barry's Park Avenue; their fresh good looks and bubbly voices recall Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda. And like Carole Lombard, the heiress who adopts a tramp in ''My Man Godfrey,'' or Joel McCrea, the Hollywood director who goes underground as a hobo in ''Sullivan's Travels,'' they are driven by conscience to see how the other half lives. The bright young things of ''Eastern Standard'' invite a bag lady to stay with them in the Hamptons.
If Mr. Greenberg's only achievement were to re-create the joy of screwball comedies, from their elegant structure to their endlessly quotable dialogue, ''Eastern Standard'' would be merely dazzling good fun. But what gives this play its unexpected weight and subversive punch is its author's ability to fold the traumas of his own time into vintage comedy without sacrificing the integrity of either his troubling content or his effervescent theatrical form. ''Eastern Standard'' opens with its characters meeting cute in a Manhattan restaurant; it ends with them toasting their future happiness on a Long Island beach. Yet in between, both Mr. Greenberg's people and his audience have been rocked by the plight of a city in the midst of ''a nervous breakdown.'' It's a city where developers rob the poor of their homes and the entire citizenry of its sunlight. It's a city where people constantly wake up with hot sweats - whether they are guilty perpetrators of financial corruption or innocent victims of AIDS.
When we first meet the four incipient lovers of ''Eastern Standard'' at a restaurant serving such dishes as grouper tortellini, they are too selfish and complacent to worry much about all that. Drew (Peter Frechette) is a downtown painter whose epater le bourgeois pose and haughty verbal ''reflex of belittlement'' are at hypocritical odds with his decadent existence. His best friend from Dartmouth days, Stephen (Dylan Baker), is an architect just awakening to his own complicity in Manhattan's urban blight. At the neighboring table are Phoebe (Patricia Clarkson), a Wall Street investment counselor caught up in an insider trading scandal, and her brother, Peter (Kevin Conroy), a television producer who spends ''days at a time defending nearly invisible principles'' while pounding socially conscious scripts into fluff at CBS.
Since Drew and Peter are both gay, and Stephen and Phoebe are not, it's only minutes before the college chums and brother and sister can mix and match in a way Preston Sturges never could have imagined in ''The Palm Beach Story.'' In his ingenious first act, Mr. Greenberg achieves the couplings with three overlapping scenes, Alan Ayckbourn-style, that replay the same action from the varying perspectives of different tables in the restaurant. Even then, a disturbing counterpoint accompanies the heavy-breathing flirtations. As the sexual repartee reaches its crescendo, so do the disquieting obscenities of an unseen woman trying to storm the barricades of Upper East Side trendiness.
That woman is the homeless May (Anne Meara), a casualty of welfare bureaucracy who just wants ''to sit like everyone else and drink some Perrier water.'' When her wish comes true in screwball fashion at Stephen's beach home after intermission, Mr. Greenberg manages to uphold the escapist tone of his classic Hollywood models while refusing to permit his characters to escape. Act II of ''Eastern Standard,'' set on a beautiful beachfront designed by Philipp Jung and lighted by Dennis Parichy, retains the champagne-informed dizziness of the poolside wedding eve in ''The Philadelphia Story.'' Freed from inhibition as if by magic, the characters switch partners, quit their jobs and vow to be reborn. But May isn't a cuddly homeless doll; she refuses to disappear in ''the wonderful solvent of a politically correct project.'' When the pretty lovers of ''Eastern Standard'' finally sober up, it is not merely because they've figured out whom they really love but because they at last see their true roles, hardly attractive ones, in the urban nightmare they've tried to flee.
Under the swift and buoyant direction of Michael Engler, ''Eastern Standard'' goes by so blithely that not until after it's over can one dip beneath the play's brilliant surface to explore its depths. Mr. Greenberg, a 30-year-old writer whose previous work includes a one-act play of great promise (''Life Under Water'') as well as the arch full-length ''Maderati,'' is maturing at an accelerating rate. ''Eastern Standard'' itself has been enriched considerably since its May premiere at the Seattle Repertory Theater.
As always, this playwright is a fount of epigrammatic lines and bright jokes. Julian Schnabel (among others) is described as being on ''the cutting edge of the passe,'' and one offstage mother is deemed so conservative that ''there's not a revolution in history that would have failed to execute her.'' The laughs never depart from a human foundation. Here is that uncommon writer who can make heterosexual and homosexual romances equally credible and erotic. The play's close sibling relationship is also gripping, and so, most impressively, is the college-spawned fraternity between Drew and Stephen. Whether engaging in juvenile locker-room humor or propping each other up in tearful sorrow, these two friends achieve a fluent intimacy that, in my experience, has never previously been alloted to male stage characters of opposite sexual preference.
With the occasional exception of the gifted Mr. Frechette, who caricatures Drew's facetiousness in Act I before hitting an affecting stride, the acting is as full-bodied as the play. Mr. Baker and Ms. Clarkson, who have floated about Off Broadway in supporting roles for a few seasons now, are transformed into radiant leading players by ''Eastern Standard.'' Like Stewart and Hepburn, they convey appealing but muddled moral rectitude that can flare into either intoxicating giddiness or bitter self-recrimination as the champagne flows on.
In an extremely tough assignment, Ms. Meara is scrupulous in refusing to conform to the sentimentalized role that her bleeding-heart benefactors wish her to play. Her bag lady strikes the perfect balance beween Lily Tomlin-like curmudgeonliness and frightening psychosis. Barbara Garrick, the one Seattle cast holdover, is similarly uncliched as a struggling actress representing the hard-put Manhattan economic class just above the homeless, and Mr. Conroy is touching as the producer determined to resist self-pity despite having AIDS. ''No one ever looked at me without thinking I'd live forever,'' he says, and, indeed, he looks like a Bruce Weber model in an advertisement for Ralph Lauren beachwear. Later, when Mr. Conroy breaks the tranquillity of the pose and its setting by crying out a simple, terrifying line - ''I'm sick!'' - the effect is devastating. As his rage tears through the Hamptons landscape, it seems to lower the curtain on a Bloomingdale's diorama of a decade in which easy money and easy pleasure were unlimited for the privileged few.
Just the same, and perhaps to the distress of ideologues, the author refuses to condemn outright his once-charmed and always charming characters. Mr. Greenberg has no better utopian schemes for conquering social inequities than they do. Like Drew, who is a middle-class artist because ''no other class is open to me,'' Mr. Greenberg must write about what he knows: people who got fat from the ethos of the 1980's but may finally begin to examine the connection between their own behavior and the sick city left in the wake of the spree.
True to form, ''Eastern Standard'' holds out hope for its people and their post-crash society much as Hollywood's Depression comedies did. It will be up to history to determine whether Mr. Greenberg's faith in the fundamental decency of his characters is as justified as Frank Capra's was. But that's our problem, not the author's. For anyone who has been waiting for a play that tells what it is like to be more or less middle-class, more or less young and more or less well-intentioned in a frightening city at this moment in this time zone, ''Eastern Standard'' at long last is it.