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Charles Grodin's new satire of the New York City real estate racket rings true but falls flat

Wednesday, Dec 1 2004
"I have a building over on Park," says Bill Hayes, a high-powered managing agent for exclusive Manhattan apartment buildings, who looks like a corporate lawyer and talks with the bluff seriousness of a yuppie playing golf, "that has a rule -- no dogs over 15 pounds. If there's a question, they'll weigh them."

"Really?" says Tom Rashman, the play's hero.

Bill nods. "The building is filled with dogs on low-fat, high-fiber diets."

This story is supposedly true. Some New Yorkers keep their dogs on diets to avoid grief from a species of unelected but powerful bodies known as co-op boards. A "co-op" in this case is an expensive New York tenancy in common, where apartment owners hold shares in a building. The board's job is to protect everyone's investment by screening new buyers. So anyone looking to purchase a desirable condominium in New York generally has to be sized up by a handful of power-tripping snobs, and Charles Grodin's new play, The Right Kind of People, wants to show the rest of the United States what kind of arrogant (and sometimes racist) nonsense these people tend to say.

"Specifically what is the requirement for getting into the building?" asks one member of Grodin's fictional board.

"A certain amount of capital, and someone who will comport themselves properly," answers another.

"Comport themselves where? Who even sees anyone here?"

"You wouldn't want someone dressed in tatters in the elevator, would you?"

"Tatters! Were the Lydells dressed in tatters?"

"No," says a third member, "but it was very clear they bought their clothes off the rack."

Grodin is a Hollywood actor and sometime talk-show host who's written three plays, counting this one. He's a big name, and people of all kinds flocked to the Magic on opening weekend for a taste of his latest show. Unfortunately, what should be a sharp satire feels oddly static, even though director Chris Smith has populated the stage with some of the Bay Area's strongest actors.

Robert Parsons plays Tom Rashman, a middle-aged Broadway producer (and stand-in for Grodin) who begins the play blissfully unaware of building politics. His wealthy Uncle Frank (Ken Ruta), who raised Tom as an orphan, invites him to join the board, where he meets throat-clearing old stuffed shirts with names like Jack Carmichael and Coles Lange. The board worries about unknown black people riding the elevator and why one prospective buyer has a traffic ticket on his record for driving the wrong way down a one-way street: Is he a drunk? He must be a drunk. We don't want any drunks in the building, insist the board members (over glasses of expensive wine).

"Where," asks Tom wryly, "are rich people with drinking problems supposed to live?"

Tom joins a liberal board member, Doug Bernstein (played by Eric Siegel), in supporting an opposition movement -- a small group of owners within the building who want to unseat the more conservative members of the board. This coup works. Old Frank Rashman has to step down, and accuses Tom of disloyalty. But the new board members turn out to be bigoted in new ways: They attract an anti-Semitism lawsuit, for example. And they hate dogs.

In a great satirist's hands this play would be savage and funny. Grodin took notes at meetings of his own co-op board, so his details of Manhattan class-consciousness and institutionalized bigotry ring clear and true. But the play lacks oomph. There's no other way to put it. The quick, shifting, comic scenes have flat punch lines, and the characters feel underwritten, which leaves even a great actor like Ruta with nothing to chew. His Frank Rashman is all pompous phrasing and wine-soaked mandarin attitude; the affections that rule him are hard to detect. Parsons is also limp and undedicated as Tom.

Clive Worsley does smooth work as Bill Hayes, the managing agent; Jarion Monroe and Will Marchetti keep up superior appearances as the WASP-ish Carmichael and Lange (respectively). Fred Burrell also does a lively thumbnail as Mr. Barrett, a plain-spoken Kansas City man who loses his temper during his screening interview ("What the hell's the matter with you people?"). In spite of all this support the script feels unintegrated, oddly disorganized, as if someone had printed the lines on strips of paper and rearranged them too many times.

Smith not only directed this show but also runs the Magic Theatre. He's done a good job of stuffing his seasons with new playwrights and world premieres. When he brings in a big name, like Grodin (or David Mamet, last season), the play tends to be an experiment, and so far these experiments have flopped. (Edna O'Brien's Triptych was an exception.) That's a sign of health -- we like to see famous writers stretch -- but it also risks turning the Magic into a place where New York playwrights slum. That would be unfortunate. New York doesn't need another reason to look down on San Francisco; it has enough snobs already.


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