Edwin C. Owens, Evan Thompson, Doris Belack and Robert Stanton in The Right Kind of People
(Photo © James Leynse)
Edwin C. Owens, Evan Thompson, Doris Belack
and Robert Stanton in The Right Kind of People
(Photo © James Leynse)
There's much laughter of recognition at Primary Stages these days -- both the hearty and uneasy varieties. It's caused by Charles Grodin's The Right Kind of People, which concerns the machinations of an upscale Fifth Avenue apartment building's co-op board. Of course, it's hard to tell how many audience members are chuckling because they relate to the potential buyers who are turned down because they had a big dog, a small child, or a heavy Jewish accent and how many are the self-appointed czars who make these often seemingly arbitrary decisions.

Grodin, better known to most people as an accomplished actor and talk show host (not to mention a memorable talk show guest), has based this play on his experiences serving on the board of his own co-op. Without question, The Right Kind of People rings of authenticity. In fact, Grodin has told interviewers that a couple of the show's snappiest lines are basically taken verbatim from actual meetings. Unfortunately for audiences, Grodin's not playing the lead role of Tom Rashman, the board newcomer whose rude awakening forms the basis of the play's slim plot. Worse yet, director Chris Smith and star Robert Stanton -- both of whom have done very good work elsewhere -- seem not to have read Grodin's stage directions, which clearly describe Tom as possessing "intelligent, dry wit" (like Charles Grodin). What we get instead is a mild-mannered, remarkably naïve, not-too-bright guy who's almost as bland as Annie Smart's neutral-toned apartment set.

But even if Grodin had played the part, Tom would not be a fully believable character. What Broadway producer in Manhattan has never heard of the Social Register? And what Broadway producer would actually consider putting on a play about the American Revolution? Then again, Grodin implies that Tom is only a successful producer for the same reasons that he's on the board and in the building: because of his Uncle Frank (Edwin C. Owens), a hedge fund manager and co-op board leader. Frank has convinced himself that his occasionally anti-Semitic or racist behavior is nothing of the kind but, instead, is based on sound economic decisions whose only purpose is to increase the building's value.

The discriminatory behavior of Frank and his cohorts begins to bother Tom, who soon befriends Frank's archenemy, the liberal Doug Bernstein (Mitchell Greenberg, in the show's most accomplished performance). Eventually, Tom must choose between staying loyal to Frank, who raised him and backs his plays, and siding with the opposition slate -- a group that, at least, talks a good game about making the building more democratic (and more Democratic).

Nothing that happens over the course of this 90-minute play is at all unexpected, but that's not the biggest problem here. Smart's set is full of borrowed furniture from Bloomingdale's that frankly seems a little too downscale for such an upscale address, and her solution of creating separate groupings to indicate three or four different apartments is equally inelegant. And though Smith constantly moves his cast around the stage between scenes, the actual blocking of the scenes suffers from too much stasis. The director has also erred badly in his guidance of Owens, who shows us only Frank's gruffness while giving no hint of the formerly big-hearted man Tom constantly describes nor the pain of a man who is deserted by his family yet still is unable to change. The remaining performers -- most notably Fred Burrell, Katherine Leask, and the always-welcome Doris Belack -- do well enough with their roles, even if they're consigned to playing little more than stereotypes.

Perhaps the loudest laughers at The Right Kind of People are those audience members who know nothing about co-op boards and are content to stay that way, eternally glad that they live in suburban homes or rent-stabilized walkups. To paraphrase Bob Merrill, people who don't need co-op boards are the luckiest people in the world.