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Theatre in Review: The Perplexed (Manhattan Theatre Club, City Center Stage I)

Margaret Colin, Patrick Breen. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

On any given day, Richard Greenberg can write rings around any other playwright, but this time he has done it to himself. The Perplexed -- an overstuffed, overpopulated, and wildly overlong drawing room comedy -- is heavily appointed with unaddressed plot points and conversations that arrive at dramatic dead ends. Currently our leading dramatist of Manhattan's upper classes, Greenberg has always had a knack for graceful and witty conversation; this time out, however, he indulges his characters in one talking jag after another.

The action takes place in the library of the unseen Berland Stahl, a superannuated real estate magnate whose personal ethics make Donald J. Trump look like Francis of Assisi. Quite apart from his grossly immoral business dealings, he has driven his daughter to a cloistered convent and subjected his son to gay reparative therapy (the electroshock version). The occasion is the wedding of Isabelle, his granddaughter, to Caleb Resnik, her childhood sweetheart; the event is also a reunion of sorts, since the families were driven apart, decades earlier, by a series of lawsuits instituted by Berland against the Resniks with the intention of ruining them.

Apparently -- the play is top-heavy with ill-explained exposition -- Evy Stahl, mother of the bride, and Ted Resnik, father of the groom, who, decades earlier, worked together as prosecutors, filed unspecified charges against the old man. That Evy was Berland's daughter-in-law caused a scandal; since then, the Stahls and the Resniks have kept their distance from each other and nobody speaks to Berland. And yet, for reasons no one can quite explain, the wedding is scheduled to take place -- at midnight -- in his hideously gilded ballroom.

I realize I'm going on a bit -- The Perplexed has that effect on one -- but the characters spend acres of time excavating the past without really illuminating it. Ted and Evy also lived in Tanzania as young adults -- possibly working in the Peace Corps -- and seemingly had an affair. Now she is married to Joe, who barely seems functional -- his manner is halting and distracted, and everyone watches his drinking -- while Ted is wedded to Natalie, a public school teacher and professional do-gooder who runs around with a gang of "feminist Midrash writers." Also on hand are James, Evy's brother, a novelist whose career is running down; Cyrus, the officiant, a former rabbi from South Carolina; and Micah, Evy and Joe's son, a Yale medical student and, currently, star of the porn website PrepBoyz.com.

With so many characters shouldering so much backstory, the characters get into no end of trouble with each other. Ted, fascinated by Micah's career, asks the young man to explain "water sports" and other sexual fetishes. (We're expected to believe that Micah has made national headlines, presumably because Evy is a City Council member, but how or why it happened is never brought to light.) A photo of Berland's genitalia gets sent around via iPhone, inflaming Joe into an act of elder abuse. Phone texts arrive from close friends who are late because they witnessed the accidental decapitation of a bike messenger. Evy struggles with a water main break in her district. We get two spiritual crises, courtesy of James and Cyrus, the latter of whom secretly carries a torch for another character. (Cyrus is also a cancer survivor, which, we learn at some length, is how he gave up banking for the synagogue before moving on to teaching.) I could keep explaining -- everyone in the play certainly does -- but suffice to say hidden affairs are brought to light, scandals are suppressed, and the wedding reception that nobody seems to want to attend is exposed as the product of a secret deal between two characters who have no obvious connection -- leading to a thoroughly arbitrary happy-ish ending.

To the extent that The Perplexed is about anything at all, Greenberg seems to be trying to take the temperature of these neurotic, self-destructive times, when people of goodwill and liberal intent seem impotent in the face of chaos and evil. But the play is a series of digressions; watching it is rather like driving on a highway and taking every single exit, just to see what's there. And for once, the playwright's urbane wit seems to be on hiatus, even if his frame of reference is as expansive as ever. The characters are at home discussing Juvenal and Hazlitt, but when Micah tells Isabelle that he visited their aunt, the nun, to reveal the details of his job, she snaps, "So you drove up to Connecticut and said to a cloistered nun, 'Oh, by the way, Sister Thomas, for money I blow like Hurricane Sandy?'"

All of this yakking unfolds on a gorgeous Architectural Digest-ready set by Santo Loquasto, with Kenneth Posner isolating the characters in attractive pools of area light. Everyone is dressed to the nines by Rita Ryack, and sound designer Fitz Patton delivers some cool jazz selections between scenes. Whatever else you may say about The Perplexed, it is easy on the eyes and ears.

It's also true that director Lynne Meadow smoothly deploys a small army of actors who carry on as if appearing in a glittering golden-age entertainment. I don't know if Margaret Colin, as Evy, gets the lion's share of the play's good lines or if she makes everything sound better than it is, but whenever she enters, the evening takes a definite turn for the better. Looking increasingly distrait as the water stains deepen on her blood-red gown, she is an exquisitely world-weary figure, a skilled fixer who can't stop her world from falling apart. She is also the play's herald of the awful truth, always well-expressed. "There's never been a divorce in our family," she says, quickly adding, "There should have been hundreds." Scarred from being mired in a political correctness controversy she terms "Pronoungate," she snarls, "One day I'm going to get a bunch of those pronoun fascists into a room and ask them to identify an adverb." And I'm sure she speaks for many when, summing up the current political nightmare, she says, "You can tell I'm a progressive by the fervor with which I defend the FBI."

If Colin's castmates often seem lost in the play's numerous cul-de-sacs, everyone delivers with maximum professionalism. The role of Joe makes no sense -- it is never clear what the dynamic and accomplished Evy is doing with this basket case, who may not even desire her -- but Frank Wood makes him a touching figure. Patrick Breen makes amusing something of James' utter frustration that Patricia, Berland's health-care attendant (a sunny, likable Anna Itty), an immigrant from Guyana, professes to be happy with her straitened existence. Gregg Edelman adds some good humor as Ted, although you can practically feel the audience recoil when Ted interrogates Micah (a frisky Zane Pais) about his sexual specialties. Ilana Levine's Natalie is a perfect terror. (Talking about a former student whose reform she considers a success, she says, "Say what you will about Riker's ...but in select cases, it can be very helpful.") Eric William Morris, Tess Frazer, and JD Taylor generate plenty of goodwill as Cyrus, Isabelle, and Caleb.

But some attractive performances and small bursts of wit are not sufficient compensation for the lumbering plot structure and generally dispirited air that mark The Perplexed. Greenberg has given us any number of good things, but these may not be the ideal times for his silken, ironic point of view. Anyway, as the play ends, the wedding ceremony is about to begin -- and not a moment too soon. -- David Barbout

(5 March 2020)

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