In 1971, at the nadir of his professional career, Edward Albee defied the critics, as well his dwindling number of theatergoers, by giving his latest play the title “All Over.” Richard Greenberg isn’t being quite that audacious title-wise, but with “The Perplexed,” he’s essentially reviewing his new play, and it’s not a good review. The incredibly rich Jewish characters presented here aren’t perplexed, but audiences at Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theater Club will be. Greenberg’s play had its world premiere there Tuesday.
The party for a wedding takes place off stage, and here in a lavish study (scenic design by Santo Loquasto) adjacent to a ballroom, the families of the bride and groom gather pre-ceremony to talk and talk and talk. Apparently, the Resnik and the Stahl families have a lot to get off their chest, because they haven’t been on speaking terms ever since Berland Stahl, the billionaire patriarch, brought a lawsuit against the groom’s father, Ted Resnik (Gregg Edelman), years ago. As the groom’s mother, Natalie (Ilana Levine), describes it to the bride’s mother, Evy Arlen-Stahl (Margaret Colin), “It was just when Berland came at us and came at us and came at us with that ridiculous lawsuit he could never win but that bankrupted us….and then Ted had to go all corporate and join that firm — oh, he called it ‘prostitute’ himself….”
One would think that Natalie and Evy had never met. While delivering triple-decker exposition, Greenberg somehow fails to give us the details of that lawsuit. He also fails to give us Berland Stahl in the flesh despite the character being universally despised and now, in his dotage, taking photos of his penis and emailing them to his nurses, whom he demands jerk him off. We also don’t get to meet Berland’s much discussed daughter, who like so many Jewish girls, became a Roman Catholic nun.
Odd career choices run in the Stahl family, and it’s nice to report that Greenberg does put onstage the bride’s handsome brother, Micah (Zane Pais, being utterly adorable), who’s working his way through med school by being a porn star even though the Stahl family has enough money to run for president of the United States.
The perplexing thing about “The Perplexed” is that after every bombshell has been detonated — blackmail, a physical brawl and gay aversion therapy are three other biggies — nothing happens, nothing forces the characters to change. Everything of interest happens offstage or it happened hours, days or years ago. Even the major revelation regarding blackmail at the finale of “The Perplexed” is just another minor speed bump in that endless wait to the wedding, which, we’re told, will take place around midnight. “The Perplexed” ends shortly before then.
Two characters are especially taxing in their kvetching. James Arlen (Patrick Breen), uncle to the bride on the mother’s side, can’t get his books published anymore. Then there’s the officiant who’s going to marry the bride (Tess Frazer) and groom (JD Taylor). Cyrus Bloom (Eric William Morris) is another of those weird Greenberg hyphenates. He’s a rabbi-atheist-financial wizard, although at different times in his life. Lynne Meadow’s direction is lax throughout, but never more so than when these two loser men are on stage. Breen and Morris are great at playing wimps, but their spot-on performances only accentuate the tedium. The roles of James and Cyrus demand to be cast against type. Whenever these two characters launch into a monologue, you can only hope for the return of delectable Micah to reveal whether he swallows or not when another porn star pees on him.
Cyrus and James are dull but not embarrassing. That latter trait belongs to Berland’s nurse Patricia (Anna Itty), a Guyanese immigrant whose daughters have graduated from Berkeley and Dartmouth. (It could have been CUNY and Hunter College, but Greenberg never goes halfway when he wants to make a point.) She’s given a beyond patronizing speech about her love for her adopted country despite having to care for a bunch of pampered pricks who don’t appreciate the country of their birth.
Greenberg is at his sharpest with the politician Evy, who recently had a “Pronoungate” scandal in her recent past. “One day I’m going to get a bunch of those pronoun fascists into a room and ask them to identify an adverb,” she promises. Colin’s unflappable calm playing Evy never fails to amuse. Also wonderful, but in a tragic way, is Frank Wood as her seriously damaged husband.
One last question: Where can we stream Micah’s videos?