Conor Donovan and Harry Zittel in Privilege
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Conor Donovan and Harry Zittel in Privilege
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"Daddy's been arrested." With those three words, the lives of two young boys are forever changed. Privilege, Paul Weitz's intriguing but uneven new play, centers on two brothers: Charlie (Conor Donovan) and Porter (Harry Zittel), aged 12 and 16, respectively. Accustomed to an upper-class lifestyle wherein their major complaints are about such things as "boring" vacations in Antigua, the boys are caught unaware when their mother (Carolyn McCormick) informs them of their father's arrest. Ted Harris (Bob Saget of TV's Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos fame) is accused of insider trading; his assets are frozen by the government while the investigation continues, and the family must adjust to doing without many of the things that they previously took for granted.

Porter fancies himself a socialist, but it's immediately apparent that he really has no idea what this means. Charlie, on the other hand, has grown up wanting to follow in the footsteps of his banker father and is the more outwardly responsible of the two brothers. Both of this production's young actors are well-suited to their roles; Donovan is particularly good in a scene in which Charlie chastises Porter for coming home drunk and after curfew. While Zittel overplays his character's inebriation in that scene, he gives a subtle, emotionally grounded performance in the second act as Porter faces the prospect of his father going to jail.

Weitz's writing is at its best when lightly cynical -- e.g., an early scene in which the two boys chatter away about inconsequential things as their maid Erla (Florencia Lozano) picks up after them. The dialogue here is punchy and full of humor. Less effective are the play's more earnest and dramatic moments, which often feel forced. Weitz doesn't explore the complexities of the situation that he's set up in as interesting a manner as he could have done: Erla's kind-hearted explanation to Porter and Charlie that they've grown up spoiled and privileged seems a bit too pat, while two monologues that demonstrate how the boys' peers begin to ostracize them come across as contrived.

Privilege is divided into short scenes, and there's not enough dramatic build from one to the next. This problem is exacerbated by Peter Askin's slack direction, which seems to hinder the play's forward momentum. A lot of the time, the characters appear far calmer than their situation warrants. While Weitz and Askin were wise in choosing not to make the play overly melodramatic, they've erred in the opposite direction.

Despite these drawbacks, there are some fine moments within the production. Saget, who tends to be a bit stiff through most of the piece, excels in a crucial scene during which Ted becomes completely flustered and angry at himself while trying to teach his sons the proper way to make their beds, now that they no longer have a maid to do it for them. Another highlight is the misguided but sincere attempt by Charlie to help pay his father's debts by selling off some of his prized possessions. When his brother ridicules him for being a moron, Charlie turns the tables with the biting remark that Porter must be a genius "because somehow you're gonna fix this situation without lifting a finger."

Featuring posters of popular '80s bands like AC/DC, The Smiths, The Dead Kennedys, and more, Tom Lynch's set captures just the right look to specify both the time period (the action is set in 1987) and the slightly rebellious streak in Porter that's reflected in what he displays on the walls of his room. Between acts, the set is changed to indicate the shift in the characters' socio-economic status; the room that the brothers now share is drab, depressing, and much smaller than the room we saw in Act I.

Weitz's writing is often quite funny, and the play brings up several issues worthy of dramatic exploration. Unfortunately, Privilege stays too much on the surface of its characters' actions and emotions. While there are moments in which it digs a bit deeper, the material does not ultimately fulfill the potential of the play's premise.