Let's admit it at the outset: "Eastern Standard," a provocative entertainment at the Coast Playhouse, is about a bunch of yuppies.
Some people simply don't want to hear about yuppie soul-searching, when there are so many more pressing problems on the planet. These people will have a built-in prejudice against this play.
Not that other problems are ignored by Richard Greenberg, the playwright. One of the characters has AIDS. Another is on the margins of an insider trading scandal. And the young and the restless in this play are confronted with a homeless schizophrenic who temporarily enters their lives and provides a prod for the action.
They're not talking about what color the new Miata should be.
It's the overall context that may annoy confirmed yuppie-haters. "Eastern Standard" is a contemporary model of the sort of play that Philip Barry wrote 60 years ago: a witty comedy that addresses social issues obliquely--through the unrest within a group of well-educated and well-connected young adults. The ending is relatively happy--for the yuppies if not for the schizophrenic.
"Eastern Standard" doesn't take its issues as seriously as some may wish. But Greenberg does take his characters seriously. He refuses to dismiss them as caricatures.
We laugh at their banter, though occasionally it sounds too studied. We also see their frailties and hypocrisies. And their possible evolution into more humane people is surprisingly heartening. Without resorting to heavy-handed psychoanalysis that would violate the standards of the genre, Greenberg digs surprisingly deep below the shallow surfaces of these people.
This balancing of a light genre with dark times, of flip remarks with suddenly felt pain, is a delicate act. But Johnathon Pape's staging carries it off as well as Greenberg's script.
The first act is set in a trendy restaurant at lunchtime, immaculately designed by Todd K. Little. But despite the cool look, which extends to the costume design by Roger Meunier and Douglas Kimble, something's amiss at each of three adjacent tables.
At the first, architect Stephen (Richard Waterhouse) confides to his gay college chum, up-and-coming artist Drew (Andrew Kreiss), that he swallowed a bottle of pills last night. Stephen couldn't abide his soulless job or his loveless life any more. He vomited up the drugs, but he's still fretting.
Financial consultant Phoebe (Lorna Patterson) arrives at the next table, soon followed by her brother Peter (Gordon Thomson), a gay TV executive. The revelations here are even grimmer.
Suddenly homeless May (Lynn Milgrim), at a third table, hurls a Perrier bottle in the direction of the yuppies, uniting their fates more than they realize. Then we see what prompted her to throw the bottle, as we return to the preceding conversation between May and would--be actress Ellen, (Christie Mellor) who's waiting on the tables.
In the second act, a month has passed and the four yuppies--now two couples--adjourn to Stephen's beach house. Stephen has the cockeyed idea to invite Ellen, with whom he has struck up a friendship. And Ellen has the crazy idea to invite bag lady May, with whom she has struck up a friendship.
May arrives and fits in remarkably well--until push comes to shove. But then May is a veteran at adapting to changing circumstances. The other characters have to do some adapting too, to May and to each other, and it's a shock to their more cushioned personalities.
As the host and nominal hub of this group, Waterhouse is a touchingly mixed-up guy, who makes fun of his own whining. Occasionally Greenberg's more byzantine turns of phrase sound a little forced in Waterhouse's mouth; but then who wouldn't have a problem making "dumbstruck as ever by the tortuous path of bureaucratic concessions" sound natural? Note how Waterhouse's thick shock of hair looks like it has been through the wringer by the final scene--a perfect little detail.
Patterson "looks as if she breakfasts on ticker tape," to quote Drew, and the arrogance never quite melts, though her concern for her brother is palpable. As for Drew, when he stops wisecracking, he starts gushing out his romantic feelings; the two impulses don't always sound as if they could co-exist. But Kreiss' limber tongue is up to the challenge.
Thomson broods beautifully, Mellor is a winning ditz, and Milgrim makes the unlikeliest transformation believable enough, for the purposes of the genre.
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