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Theatre in Review: A Better Place (The Directors Company/The Duke on 42nd Street)

Edward James Hyland, Judith Hawking. Photo: Jenny Anderson

A Better Place, a comedy about Manhattan real estate, is a property in need of a gut renovation. The perpetual New York obsession with finding chicer, more spacious, and more luxurious living space has long been a fertile source for humor, but the playwright, Wendy Beckett, piles on so many lame conceits and garish cartoon characterizations that the amusement quotient hovers near zero.

A Better Place is a tale of two West Side apartments. On one side of the stage, in a crowded, but rent-controlled, place, live Les Covert and Sel Trevoc (get it?), a cross-generational gay couple. Les, a career waiter, yearns for wealth and a more prestigious address. Sel, a professor of philosophy, is, well, more philosophical about their living situation; he assures Les that once he has attained tenure, they can go apartment-shopping. The tenure track at wherever Sel teaches must be pretty congested, since he appears to have reached his seventies without attaining any job security.

Anyway, Les gazes endlessly out the living room window, eyeballing, in Rear Window fashion, the lives of the family in the chic, sleek condo across the street. They are Mary and John Roberts, a middle-aged couple, and their daughter, Carol. One of the more unappealing characters to come our way in some time, Carol is 28, jobless, and enormously entitled. She runs around in dresses that look like carelessly draped lace napkins and develops nymphomaniac tendencies whenever she gets within five feet of a real estate broker. She also has a unique style of foreplay with these guys: Whisper in her ear such phrases as "prime landmark status," "stunning idyllic gardens," and "fifteen-foot ceilings," and she lies down on the nearest horizontal surface. Watching these distasteful displays, I kept thinking, It's too bad Donald Trump is spoken for.

What Les' envious gaze doesn't take in is that the Roberts are living way beyond their means. John, an ardent gambler, used a big win at the track for the down payment on their home, and now he works two jobs to keep the family above water. Meanwhile, Mary is pressing John to sell the place and use the money to finance a blissful retirement in Florida, unaware that he harbors a big secret about their financial status. At the same time, Mary is desperate to get Carol -- who has no apparent education or skills -- into the workforce, so that she can support herself. Fat chance: Carol wants to marry one of the brokers she beds so casually, thus continuing her life of gilded idleness. Even better, she thinks John and Mary should sign over their place to her.

As the characters stumble toward the realization that a life of lavish amenities means nothing without the ones you love, A Better Place is filled with reams of unamusing dialogue and wildly improbable plot developments. Much of the action turns on a briefcase filled with $96,000, which John manages to lose on the street and Les finds, a turn of events that the playwright is especially hard-pressed to explain. Also, we are asked to believe that Carol has never noticed that her father is not a business executive or professional gambler but a carpenter. For another, we are told that Sel, who has apparently lived with Les for years, has never asked him about his mother. (She developed Alzheimer's at an early age, leaving him to start his waiter career at the age of fourteen.) When Les is fired from the restaurant where he was a longtime employee, he doesn't even think of looking for another job. Instead, he goes into a tailspin, taking up permanent residence on his couch. And then there's the dialogue, which runs to such treats as the following:

Mary (trying to interest Carol in an available possible husband): What about that man at Zabar's? He works hard.

Carol: Have you spoken to him? He's a geek.

Mary: What difference does it make what country he's from?

For the record, the ever-reliable Judith Hawking does her very best as Mary, who uses her pink leopard-print laptop to court virtual admirers on OK Cupid, and Michael Satow does well in a variety of small roles, among them Carol's assorted suitors.

If the director, Evan Bergman, can't make anything out of the script, he has seen to it that A Better Place has a very attractive production design. David L. Arsenault's set, which puts the audience on two sides, provides cutaway views of both apartments, using all sorts of details to make clear that their inhabitants live markedly different lives. Russell H. Champa's lighting unfailingly and accurately redirects our attention and also provides a subtly different atmosphere for each apartment. Valerie Ramshur's costumes are reasonably suitable for each character and Sam Kusnetz's sound design delivers some jazzy piano interludes between scenes and such effects as traffic noises and the wail of an ambulance.

Beckett manages somehow to steer all of her characters toward a happy ending that is no more convincing than anything else in her play. In the current buyer's market for good theatre, A Better Place is likely to sit on the shelf, attracting very few takers. -- David Barbour

(18 May 2016)

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