Richard Greenberg became more than just a blip on the theatrical radar screen a dozen years ago with Eastern Standard, a hip comedy about being a liberal who has to cope with financial success. It was geared to appeal to the self-conscious yuppies it portrayed, no less than their detractors. Though Greenberg's sharp wit and elevated language were widely noted at the time, Eastern Standard was perceived as a superficial look at the hot-button issues it trafficked in, including AIDS and homelessness. It had at least one powerful advocate in the New York Times's Frank Rich, however, whose influence prompted the play to sell out its limited run quickly at the Manhattan Theater Club and then transfer to Broadway.
Greenberg's reputation should have soared with a number of superior offerings that followed Eastern Standard. These include The American Plan, a well-disguised variation on Washington Square, set in the Catskills in 1960 to comment on the conformity of the Eisenhower era; and The Author's Voice, a whimsically fiendish, one-act gem about a vacuous author with a secret: his gnomelike ghostwriter. And, although it opened at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1997, Three Days of Rain has yet to be recognized for the masterpiece it is. This cleverly crafted play concerns a triangle composed of a pair of middle-aged siblings and their intimate friend in the first act, before it backs up thirty-five years to focus on their respective parents. While it zooms in on one generation's inability to comprehend its parents' behavior–as well as its tendency to repeat their mistakes–Rain leaves us with the haunting realization that the past can be every bit as unknowable as the future.
Today Greenberg is back with his ambitious new play, Everett Beekin, at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. By introducing us in Act I to a Jewish family just after World War II, and then to their offspring fifty years later in Act II, Beekin expands upon a number of themes Greenberg handled so gracefully in Rain. Part One, "The Shabbos Goy," is set on the Lower East Side in the late 1940s, evoking an old-fashioned family drama by Clifford Odets, with a good deal of humorous repartee added for some verbal shpritzing. In contrast with their émigré mother, Anna (Bebe Neuwirth) and Sophie (Robin Bartlett) are doing their best to assimilate in the new, heterodox world. With husbands and homes of their own in the new suburbs, they have made their weekly pilgrimage to Ma's tenement, where eventually we also meet their frail and ailing younger sister, Miri (Jennifer Carpenter).
The "goy" of the act's title is Jimmy (Kevin Isola), a gentleman caller who ultimately divulges that he and Miri have plans to marry–much to Ma's dismay. We also hear a good deal about Everett Beekin VI, an Army pal with whom Jimmy plans to open a pharmaceuticals company in Southern California.
Though the eponymous Beekin remains an offstage figure in Part One, he is represented by both his son Bee (Jeff Allin) and his grandson Ev (also Isola) in Part Two, titled "The Pacific." Set in Orange County, California, in the late 1990s, the second half of Beekin feels like new territory for Greenberg, and may prove jarring to those members of the audience who felt particularly comfortable with the more conventional first part. In lieu of the ultrarealistic kitchen-sink set and the familiar sitcom terms that preceded the intermission, the stage is now stripped bare, the playwright's realm more abstract. Along with the suddenly fragmented language and a reliance on Donald Holder's bold lighting effects to indicate the setting, this is all a part of Greenberg's larger scheme, reinforcing the notion that Old World traditions have yielded to the flimsy or more transient values of today.
Into this terra-far-from-firma arrives Celia (played also by Bartlett), with whom Anna was pregnant in Part One. With a couple of family secrets in tow, the frumpy Celia has just flown in from New York to attend the wedding of her niece Laurel (Carpenter), who's slated to marry Ev. Meanwhile, Laurel's mother, Nell (Neuwirth), is having an affair with Ev's father, Bee. Given that the sleek Nell is Celia's younger sister, any number of connections to the Beekin clan suddenly seem feasible. But as Celia tells Nell about an aunt they never knew they had, it becomes clear that Miri died quite young, before marrying Jimmy or moving to California.
With her razor-sharp wit and a cynicism she occasionally wields against herself, Celia is a typical Greenberg creation. She feels out of her element in Southern California; but then, everyone–and especially the younger, verbally challenged characters–has difficulty expressing themselves in this new and alienating environment. Laurel calls Aunt Celia to tell her, with incomplete thoughts and broken phrases, that she doesn't want to go through with the marriage. "It's like I'm…my whole life…I want to live my life! Do you know how young I am? Fuck!" she offers by way of explanation. After the bride-to-have-been runs away to New York, it's Ev's turn to phone the visiting New Yorker and reluctant analyst. "Could we talk a little?" he asks awkwardly. "Yes, sure," says Celia. After a loaded pause, Ev asks, "Could you start?" Or consider this exchange: When Celia sardonically asks Bee, "Do you ever say anything interesting?" He responds, "Nope. Don't have to. Got money."
Greenberg may veer toward the cliché by revisiting such well-traversed territory, but he captures today's Orange County lingo with fresh-squeezed precision. He also introduces certain trite notions only to disabuse us of them later. Bee, for instance, may indeed seem like just another empty-headed Californian or a self-proclaimed "venture capitalist" with nothing to say, but he ultimately delivers an eloquent monologue about the first five Everett Beekins. To add that his tale is presented as family lore and possibly mythical is to further the playwright's ongoing message about a past we can only try to piece together.
Under the sympatico direction of Greenberg's longtime collaborator Evan Yionoulis, the actors burrow deep to locate the emotional truths their characters have difficulty articulating. With skillfully modulated accents and magisterial authority, Bartlett and Neuwirth flip from playing Sophie and Anna to become Celia and Nell in Part Two. As the Yiddish-inflected matriarch in part one, Marcia Jean Kurtz conjures the late, great Molly Picon. And Isola and Carpenter prove particularly effective in rendering the California newspeak of Ev and Laurel. Having actors double up to become their characters' descendants (in Beekin) or their ancestors (in Rain) may be confusing at first, but it also adds another dimension to Greenberg's already multifaceted designs.
While inviting us to compare an older generation with a younger, Jews and WASPs, West Coast and East, Everett Beekin becomes a thought-provoking prism, refracting innumerable connections as they spin in and out of our purview. With this play, Greenberg has mastered the art of telling a story between the lines, of using hints and nuance, like Chekhov, to say far more than can be said directly. This is not only characteristic of poetry but a part of Greenberg's overriding message: Life is always to be found–or missed–in the details.
When a playwright's mission to challenge the status quo arose as a topic during a Lincoln Center symposium this past summer, Edward Albee quipped, "We write plays in the hopes that they won't be necessary." Though he was referring to himself as well as fellow panelists Arthur Miller and John Guare, he may as well have been speaking for Lee Blessing. Blessing is not only, like Greenberg, an underestimated playwright, but also one of our most politically motivated.
In addition to his antiracist Cobb, his highly pro-feminist Eleemosynary and his grappling with decades of heartland homophobia in Thief River, Blessing wrote a probing play about Kimberly Bergalis, the "innocent" victim of AIDS who was infected by her dentist in Florida. (Given Blessing's evenhanded treatment of the thornier aspects of the story, anyone who saw Patient A would probably be surprised to learn that it was commissioned by the Bergalis family.) A Walk in the Woods, Blessing's Broadway and West End hit, concerned nuclear disarmament talks. In addition to being staged in Moscow, Woods became the only Broadway play ever performed in its entirety for the Senate and the House of Representatives–where, alas, it should be revived today.
In light of its focus on Arab terrorists, Blessing's Two Rooms might seem a timely response to the events of September 11. Rather, this 1988 drama–in revival at the tiny Blue Heron Theater through late November–emerges as a potent reminder that our war with various factions in the Middle East commenced long before the World Trade Center attacks. As Michael Wells (Thomas James O'Leary) says in the play's opening monologue, "These people have been taking hostages for thousands of years. They know how to do it." A thirtysomething American who had been teaching in Beirut, Michael was captured a year before the play begins. The scenario shifts between Michael in his cell and his wife, Lainie (Monica Koskey), who has returned to their home in the United States. Lainie has emptied Michael's office of all its furnishings in her desperate attempt to duplicate what she imagines to be his prison environment.
In her introductory remarks, Lainie talks about the problems she's had dealing with both Damascus and Washington. "It's hard to know which was worse," she says, before deciding that it was "definitely Washington. The Arabs wouldn't help me, but at least they'd respect the pain. In Washington, I was the pain."
The thrust of the drama is less on Michael's plight than on Lainie's response, encompassing the ways she's manipulated by both Walker (Steve Cell), a journalist, and Ellen (Beth Dixon), a State Department bureaucrat assigned to the case. Servicing their own ends, these two puppeteers provide Lainie with contradictory advice. While Walker points out that the government can't be trusted in hostage situations, Ellen is dismayed that the writer has been briefing Lainie. "We have no way of knowing what public statements by hostage relatives may do," Ellen admonishes Lainie. "It could make it even harder for us to secure a safe return."
Typical of Blessing, he makes his more academic points in Two Rooms without harming the integrity of his drama–even though he includes a couple of lectures, replete with slide shows. The lecture that opens Act II seems uncanny, as if it were written in the wake of September 11. As she begins to project a dizzying number of slides of young Shiite terrorists, Ellen says:
He may be college-educated…. He may be a shepherd, with no education whatsoever. He may speak English, or only Arabic…. He may be utterly committed to his cause, or only doing this because it provides work and food and some measure of security…. Here's another one…. And another…. And another, and another, and–thousands in the country. And this of course is only one country. Think of it–enormous numbers of people all over the world hating Americans…. Why? They watch our television, you know. See our films, wear our clothes, drive our cars, listen to our music. They use our technology–what they can afford of it. They learn in our universities. What do they learn? That by sheerest accident, they have been born in a part of the world which has no power. That to be an uneducated person in a small country, speaking a bypassed language, worshipping an old-fashioned god is worse than death…. In a real sense, the Crusades are here again. We in the State Department understand that. It's our job to be ready to sacrifice the few for the many when necessary, and we do.
There are few actors who could remain in character while delivering such didactic oratory. But clad in a pinstriped suit and frizzled hair, Dixon is always on target as the no-nonsense, if ultimately sympathetic, Ellen; and O'Leary keeps finding deeper layers to Michael, especially as the prisoner's incarceration spans three years and his apprehension of time deteriorates. Although O'Leary's performance goes a long way toward making this production of Two Rooms the searing drama it has the potential to be, it is slightly undermined by Roger Danforth's uneven direction, and by Koskey and Cell's over-emoting as Lainie and Walker.
While a number of more established playwrights continue to command the limelight with lazy and rehashed works, the frequently rewarding fare of Richard Greenberg and Lee Blessing remains relatively undervalued. Both Everett Beekin and Two Rooms remind us that the theater can compel us to reconsider what we thought we knew. And that's theater at its best.