All the Right Cardboard People

By Geary Danihy

Flash! Stop the presses! This just in.

It has been suggested by inside sources that members of co-op boards of exclusive Fifth Avenue apartment buildings may very well be self-centered closet bigots, using their power to keep “unwanted elements” out of their buildings. I, like you, find this hard to believe but, based on The Right Kind of People, a one-act play by actor/playwright/commentator Charles Grodin that is currently running at Square One Theatre, it’s all true.

This less than humorous comedy comes complete with cardboard characters and pedestrian dialogue made all the less scintillating by lack of timing in its delivery. Grodin, who served on a co-op board in the waning years of the last century, may have thought he was writing a shocking, biting expose of the moneyed troglodytes who inhabit some of New York City’s most exclusive apartments, but there’s little snap or snarl in his dialogue and his characters seem more pathetic than predatory.

John Cassidy, who bears more than a slight resemblance to Grodin, is Tom Rashman, a Broadway producer with a sugar daddy uncle by the name of Frank (Frank Smith) who has helped fund his nephew’s productions and, as a member of the co-op board, succeeded in getting his nephew into the building even though the young man’s financials are not really up to snuff. Frank has also finagled his nephew a position on the board, thinking that this will help the young producer snag some old money for his next show.

The board’s first meeting tells it all. In addition to Uncle Frank and his nephew, there’s Cole Lang (John  Pyron), who covers his bigotry with a velvet voice and a soothing manner; Jack Carmichael (J. Kevin Smith), a prissy Wall Street type given to dramatic facial expressions and dictatorial demands; Doug Bernstein (Alexander Kulcsar), the board’s devil’s advocate; Betty Butler (Davina Porter), the blue-blooded dragon at the gates; Bill Hayes (Frank Panzer), the board’s spin doctor ever eager to put their decisions in the best light.

As the board discusses various problems, plus the suitability of a prospective tenant, its members’ prejudices are quickly and clearly revealed. The audience gets it and is ready to go somewhere with all of this, but unfortunately Grodin is not. He plays the same tune over and over again, even when there’s a revolt and old members are kicked off the board and replaced by Bruce Delson (Joseph Mallon), Claire Wilson (Janet Rathert) and Craig Hutto (David Victor). The new lords of the manor turn out to be just as prejudiced as the people they replaced.

Grodin attempts to inject some movement and drama into all of this by creating a rift between Uncle Frank and Tom, with Frank believing that his nephew has betrayed him by meeting with the building’s “revolutionaries” and, even worse, not saying a kind word for the old board members when they were under attack. It’s a tempest in a Delft teapot that Grodin wishes us to view as akin to the titanic struggle between King Henry and Thomas Becket.

One senses that Grodin was a bit unsure of how to end the play, so he fell back on the device of turning Tom into a narrator to wrap things up. Shades of Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie save for the fact that Tennessee Williams established his Tom  as the narrator from the get-go; Grodin’s Tom provides an epilogue of sorts mainly because the play really has no climax and hence no justification for a denouement.

The play runs approximately 90 minutes, but director Tom Holehan, Square One’s artistic director, could have easily shaved eight or 10 minutes off the running time by merely cutting out all of the air in his actors’ delivery of their lines. What should be crisp and connected is languid and even, at times, hesitant. However, there wasn’t much Holehan could do with innovative blocking, since set designer John Gallagher has created a set consisting of chairs and couches arranged in such a manner that movement is basically channeled left and right – the actors flow in, the actors flow out as if they are being called on to make presentations at some annual sales meeting.

Square One normally has a good eye for properties suited to the theater and its talent. Unfortunately, The Right Kind of People ain’t one of them. All one can do is look forward to the company’s next production, A. R. Gurney’s LOVE LETTERS. The company has done exceedingly well with Gurney’s work in the past and there’s no reason to believe that that success won’t continue.

 The Right Kind of People runs through Saturday, Nov.21. For tickets or more information call 375-8778 or go to www.squareonetheatre.com

            This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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