She’s hip. She’s young. She’s trendy. She’s now. She strides purposely through life with her dress-for-success look, taking power lunches, holding her own with her sexist male colleagues during Happy Hour.
Upbeat? “Bullish!” is her answer to the question, “How’s your day?” With it? “The reason smart, sensitive women haven’t gotten married,” she tells us with a knowing wink, “is that there aren’t enough smart, sensitive men to go around.” The audience loved that one. She really knows where it’s at.
Stephen Metcalfe’s “Emily,” in its debut at the Old Globe Theatre, is the story of a Manhattan stockbroker and an energetic blend of the pop media imagery currently rattling around in the yuppie Zeitgeist . She has a good job (though it’s in her father’s firm) and a smart address (though her apartment has no furniture) and she’s sexually liberated. Metcalfe even contrives to send her to Minnesota so she can exuberantly toss her cap in the air the way Mary Richards did while the credits rolled on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
That moment is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s one of the few brief instances where Metcalfe has a take on Emily. Otherwise, she bounces imperturbably along as though she were coming out of a TV commercial.
“Emily” at the moment has the feel of a work-in-progress. It’s very difficult to take the yuppie milieu at face value, as Metcalfe has done, and find something incisive about a group of people who have opinions but no ideas, feelings but no passions, who get depressed without experiencing the philosophical stain of real despair.
The life of “Emily” appears to have been something Metcalfe read up on without really absorbing. The businessmen here are cynical, lecherous, borderline drunk (“Men and women need each other,” one of her colleagues tells her. “They need the tax deduction”); the fathers as professional successes have no time or sympathy for the ambiguous complications of family life (though they briefly bare small romantic soft spots in their hearts for knowing girls). The stylish mothers in such relationships are invariably arrogant, wasp-tongued, brittle and unhappy. There’s even the dumpy friend, Hallie, who masks her fear of unsuccess and sexual unappeal with wisecracks. “You know what a career is?” she asks. “Some dumb fancy name for making a living.”
Emily carries a wedding ring in her purse, which she springs on her young man of the week in a calculated effort to scare him away.
It’s one of several devices or images Metcalfe uses to indicate how terrified Emily is, but that fear is never explored. The disparity between the upbeat figure who knows all the right moves and the inwardly isolated, anxious and inert human being is only commented on by the people around her, to whom all life lends itself to the one-liner.
To a great extent, this includes Jon, the struggling actor Emily meets in a restaurant while he’s waiting tables. They get on well enough for him to call her wedding ring bluff. She panics and bolts, rethinks her position, tries to win him back by making herself conspicuous in the audience while he plays a scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” No dice. She even follows him back to Minnesota to meet his folks. Still they don’t connect. She returns to New York and feeds herself enough excuses for being alone to begin believing them. Jon reappears. “I can’t give up,” he says. End of story.
In his program notes, director Jack O’Brien describes Emily in part as being ". . . too clever by half” (he also considers her “educated and well bred,” which is an overstatement), and at one point Jon tells her, “You’re so quick and glib and never say anything.” It’s hard to discern what “Emily” is trying to tell us beyond the contention that life can be lonely and confusing for smart young trendies who seem to have it all.
Maybe if we saw something grittier in her surroundings, we might get a sense of poignancy over what she was running from, or what she spent so much time kidding herself about. But everyone around her is as phony or as empty as she is, inasmuch as attitudes substitute for identity. In this play everybody is a little bit unhappy, but nobody really suffers.
O’Brien’s direction is fluid and inventive and his comedic moments are neatly timed. Madolyn Smith resists being cute or smug in as stylish and intelligent a performance as this “Emily” will allow.
Kenneth Marshall is a bit of a blank as the intermittently conceived Jon--he looks like an actor struggling to be a waiter instead of the other way around--and there’s no romantic or sexual chemistry between him and Smith.
Margo Martindale does well as Hallie, the fat friend every svelte girl takes to a singles’ bar in order to look better, as do Mitchell Edmonds, Jo deWinter and Larry Drake in smaller roles.
Douglas W. Schmidt created the elegant minimalist set and Bob James the original music.
What was on the mind of costume designer Steven Rubin to give Emily a single, albeit smart, costume to wear through many changes, a certain chronology and a trip to Minnesota and back? It has inadvertently tied “Emily” into Milton Berle’s famous retort, “You heckled me 30 years ago. I never forget a suit.”
A new play by Stephen Metcalfe. Director Jack O’Brien. Scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt. Costumes Steven Rubin. Lights David F. Segal. Music Bob James. Sound design Michael Holten. With Madolyn Smith, Larry Drake, Steve Rankin, Jonathan McMurtry, William Anton, Mitchell Edmonds, Margo Martindale, Kenneth Marshall, Jo deWinter, Keith Devaney, Susan Gosdick, Neil Alan Tadken. Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m., until Sept. 21. It alternates with “Richard II” through Aug. 31 (619) 239-2255.