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Richard Greenberg's The Perplexed Lives Up to Its Title

A new drama about the struggles of the one percent comes to Manhattan Theatre Club.

Anna Itty, Eric William Morris, Zane Pais, Margaret Colin, Frank Wood, Tess Frazer, J.D. Taylor, Ilana Levine, Gregg Edelman, and Patrick Breen in Richard Greenberg's The Perplexed,
(© Matthew Murphy)

Richard Greenberg's The Perplexed is the kind of show I thought our theater scene had graduated from. It's the story of wealthy Caucasians and their exceedingly obnoxious problems, set in a spacious New York apartment lined with books, and spoken in the kind of ostentatious language that would only be uttered by characters with names like Cyrus Bloom and Natalie Hochberg-Resnik. This timid drama is Greenberg's unnecessary response to the popular phrase "OK, boomer," but it seems almost afraid to exist.

The Perplexed takes place in the library of the unseen Berland Stahl, an ancient, Rupert Murdoch-style billionaire gorgon whose granddaughter Isabelle (Tess Frazer) is getting married to Caleb Resnik (J.D. Taylor), son of a family he once sued into bankruptcy. The families Stahl (Margaret Colin as City Councilwoman Evy, and Frank Wood as the fragile, seemingly unemployed Joseph) and Resnik (Gregg Edelman as lawyer Ted, and Ilana Levine as Natalie, a lady who lunches at Torah study class) have let their longstanding resentments simmer for the occasion, but that doesn't mean everyone's happy.

In fact, everyone is hiding the kind of something that would make for a more interesting play than The Perplexed actually is. Joseph, we learn, is not only deeply closeted and forced to endure a heterosexual marriage, but he was subject to conversion therapy at the hands of his father. Joseph's resentment for his family comes to a head when he learns that his son Micah (Zane Pais) is now a popular star of gay porn. Meanwhile, Evy, a sixtysomething feminist running for City Council speaker, is dealing with her obsolescence as she realizes that she'll probably never get elected because voters will likely go for someone younger and more progressive.

Had Greenberg actually delved into these topics, he could have created a potentially revealing drama about the contemporary American middle and upper classes and their feared loss of purpose. At the very least, he could have created a play that had something — anything — to say about these very fears experienced in our rapidly evolving country. Instead, The Perplexed is two hours and 40 indulgent minutes (don't believe it when they tell you in the lobby that it's two hours and 10) of pedantic sermonizing.

Of course, it looks great; they always do at Manhattan Theatre Club, which has given The Perplexed as deluxe a production as ever. We all wish we could live in Santo Loquasto's frou-frou set, lounge around in Rita Ryack's expensive costumes, and have a sunset view like the one provided by Kenneth Posner's lighting. So we fortunately have things to salivate over during Lynne Meadow's lugubrious staging, which inexplicably thinks the text is a drawing-room farce and finds actors bounding through doors and sitting in anterooms eavesdropping.

While Wood has some pretty heartbreaking moments, all of the grown-ups in the company (which includes Patrick Breen as Evy's failed novelist brother and Anna Itty as Berland's Guyanese home health aide) seem to know what's up and act as half-hearted as their scripted arguments. The younger players (rounded out by Eric William Morris as former rabbi Cyrus, wedding officiate and Isabelle's ex) all deliver performances in various shades of beige.

What Greenberg and Meadow don't realize is just how behind the times The Perplexed feels. As other mainstream theaters across New York City do far more adventurous, boundary-pushing work, The Perplexed is so passé and mothball-y that it already seems as obsolete as its characters fear they'll become. The most perplexing things about this show are how no one noticed that sooner and why no one tried to push Greenberg into going out of his comfort zone.

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