Robin Bartlett and Kevin Isola in Everett Beekin(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Robin Bartlett and Kevin Isola in Everett Beekin
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In the first act of his acclaimed Three Days of Rain, Richard Greenberg introduces three characters occupying a Manhattan loft in 1995. For the second act, he flashes back to the same loft in 1960 and introduces three characters (played by the same actors) who are related by blood and also somewhat by sensibility to those the audience has just seen. In his new play, Everett Beekin, Greenberg reverses the jump by setting Act One in the late 1940s and then skipping in Act Two to the late '90s. Despite their differences, these two plays can be viewed as companion pieces in that they are variations on a plaintive theme. What Greenberg aims to do by peeking at different generations is to note that some of who we become in our lives is explainable by what has preceded us and some is not. Furthermore, he seems to believe that family histories are rife with secrets and that, while many of them may be uncovered in time, others won't be, leaving us bereft of understanding and possibly isolated from one another and from our roots in the past.

"The Shabbos Goy" is the title Greenberg gives to the first act of Everett Beekin, wherein sisters Sophie (Robin Bartlett) and Anna (Bebe Neuwirth) are making the traditional Friday night visit to their mother's tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As usual, Sophie has brought along her dull husband, Jack (Jeff Allin), but Anna's spouse is somewhere else, possibly having a neurotic episode. The siblings spend the slow-moving Sabbath hours bickering with each other and their tetchy Ma (Marcia Jean Kurtz), although Anna is much less caustic than Sophie--not as critical, say, of Ma's Yiddishisms or her washing of money, an activity to which she devotes herself single-mindedly for five minutes of playing time.

While speculating on their parents' marriage, Sophie and Anna are also concerned about their sister Miriam. Sophie observes that Miri, as she is called, hardly comes out of her bedroom to greet them from one week to the next. The pale, frail, sequestered young woman, played by Jennifer Carpenter, only enters when a man calling himself Jimmy Constant (Kevin Isola) arrives to announce that he intends to marry her. Jimmy, aware of the problems Ma is having with this inter-faith romance, is an enterprising, confident, problem-solving young man who plans to go West for a business opportunity with a man named Everett Beekin. Before he departs, though, he offers himself as the Shabbos goy--i.e., a gentile who does the small duties Jews are prohibited from performing on the Sabbath The gesture isn't well-received but, as the act ends, there is the sense that Jimmy has prevailed to some extent.

Greenberg calls the second act of the play "The Pacific" and sets it in Orange County, California. Again he brings on two bickering sisters; they're Anna's daughters, Nell (Neuwirth) and Celia (Bartlett). Celia has flown west for the wedding of Nell's daughter Laurel (Jennifer Carpenter) to another man named Everett Bueekin, or Ev (Kevin Isola). He's the son of yet another man named Everett Beekin, or Bee (Jeff Allin). Plans go awry when Laurel gets cold feet, confides as much in her aunt, and then scoots to New York. This riles Nell and devastates Ev, who is a curiously affectless lad. Celia expresses her take on things in a few monologues and also spends a long night listening to Ev try to come up with a reason for Laurel's defection. Before the act ends, Celia and Nell have a chance to discuss their aunt Miriam, whose life and early death (she never married Jimmy) has been kept from them. Also, Bee has a chance to tell another family-secret story about the origin of the numerous Everett Beekins. This one sheds light, but only a dim one, on how the characters are connected. At the play's end, Laurel has returned; while she and Ev resume their young-adult play, the three adults gaze at the Pacific.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Greenberg's dramaturgy this time out involves the style--or styles--in which he has chosen to unfold his intentionally sketchy story. Act One has the look and feel of a kitchen-sink drama, the sort that would not have been unfamiliar to 1940s audiences. (Designer Christopher Barreca includes the sink in a realistic apartment set). Ma, Sophie, Anna, Jack, Miri, and Jimmy sit around the kitchen table and move into the living room as the characters would in any conventional family drama. In Act Two, which is much more cinematic, Celia, Nell, Laurel, Bee, and Ev fill various California sites suggested by the odd piece of furniture or pool of light. Put more simply: Act One is slice-of-life, Act Two is splice-of-life.

Yet both acts make the same point, their sketchiness meant to suggest the sketchy picture of our past and present that's the best any of us can expect to put together from the fragmented information we receive. Greenberg's people often speak poetically, but it's haiku; sometimes, it's even symbolist poetry; rarely, if ever, is it narrative poetry. Whereas this technique works beautifully in Three Days of Rain, it registers as less successful in Everett Beekin. It's one thing for Greenberg to say that life withholds answers and explanations but another thing entirely for audiences to feel that information they'd like to have is being withheld. When Celia and Ev are at a roadside diner in the "Pacifics" act, for example, a waitress played by Marcia Jean Kurtz comes to their table and triggers a story from Celia about her grandmother. Celia is unsure why she tells the story and the puzzled waitress responds, "Wuss?" Ev is another problem. Meant to be a carefree fellow of moderate intelligence, he comes off as thoroughly slow witted. It makes sense when Laurel skips out on him and no sense when she returns.

Bebe Neuwirth in Everett Beekin(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Bebe Neuwirth in Everett Beekin
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Director Evan Yionoulis, with whom Greenberg works regularly, may be responsible for Ev's calling to mind an erased blackboard--and so may Kevin Isola, who plays the role. If that's the case, this is the only false acting note in the production. Both Bartlett and Neuwirth, as two pairs of sisters with similar temperaments, find subtle ways to differentiate their performances from act to act. Allin (as Jack and Bee) and Carpenter (as Miri and Laurel) have an easier time of it, since their roles are at more or less opposite ends of the character profile spectrum. Isola's Jimmy Constant is the embodiment of WASP assurance. Kurtz, who can always be counted on to seem as authentic as an armchair, humanizes Ma without letting her off the hook; when she literally launders money, she's a quiet riot. Would that Greenberg had thought up more for her to do as the "Wuss?"-ing waitress.

One last observation: Since the first act of Everett Beekin features Barreca's fully appointed tenement living room and kitchen and the second act is mostly sky glimpsed through a false proscenium of glass and chrome, the stagehands have their work cut out for them during the intermission. Their dismantling of one set to replace it with the other is a metaphor for the way in which many contemporary playwrights--Greenberg among them--have deconstructed the well-made play.