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.