Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 4 March 2020

Review: The Perplexed at Manhattan Theatre Club

New York City Center - Stage I ⋄ February 11-March 29

Juan Ramirez finds no joy in this “lifeless production” of Richard Greenberg’s new play, with a “dire lack of dramatic tension.”

Juan A. Ramirez
Margaret Colin, Frank Wood, Ilana Levine, and Gregg Edelman in <i>The Perplexed</i>. Photo: © Matthew Murphy, 2020

Margaret Colin, Frank Wood, Ilana Levine, and Gregg Edelman in The Perplexed. Photo: © Matthew Murphy, 2020

It’s never fun to trash a show—it’s never fun to sit through a show you want to trash, even, although that’s beside the point—but when a production goes from dull to offensive to incompetent, empathy sort of flies out the window.

It brings me no joy, then, to say that the shoes worn by the men in this play don’t seem to fit right (costumes by Rita Ryack); or that the lighting and sound design (by Kenneth Posner and Fitz Patton, respectively) wouldn’t have worked even if they hadn’t repeatedly missed their marks; or that the admittedly gorgeous library set (by the always excellent Santo Loquasto) starts to feel unintentionally like a funeral home.

If it seems odd to mention the technical aspects of Richard Greenberg’s new play, flatly directed by Lynne Meadow, before the work itself, I can only defer to a natural impulse to delay dissatisfaction. Ostensibly a Little Foxes–meets–Knives Out black comedy about two wealthy Manhattan families scheming through two of their children’s upcoming nuptials, it floods its borrowed setup with enough ripped-from-the-headlines subplots to rival a few hours wasted on Facebook.

Quickly: The imperious Evy Arlen-Stahl (Margaret Colin) is upset that her daughter, Isabelle (Tess Frazer), is marrying Caleb (JD Taylor), the cardboard cutout of a Wall Street caricature son of old friends Natalie (Ilana Levine, trying her best) and Ted Resnik (Gregg Edelman). Why? It’s unclear. Evy must also deal with her husband, Joseph (Frank Wood), who ails from an underwritten dementia and a long-ago stint in conversion therapy that’s brought up once, with the delicacy of a Garfield cartoon, then promptly dropped.

Also hanging around are Micah (Zane Pais), the younger Stahl, who has recently revealed he stars in gay adult films on the side (ha ha?); Cyrus (Eric William Morris), the once-rabbi, now adrift mid-lifer officiating the wedding; Patricia (Anna Itty), the Guyanese nurse assigned to the unseen Stahl patriarch, who miraculously keeps turning the other cheek; and James (Patrick Breen), Evy’s brother and the play’s de facto queer observer making tired quips from the sidelines.

They all hang around, dropping the kind of masturbatory punchlines (“Drinks at seven, buffet at 8:30, dancing at ten, ceremony at midnight—who was the wedding planner—Jean-Paul Sartre?”) you seldom see outside of ’90s sitcoms, and spilling secrets. These revelations, among a nondescript ten-person ensemble, carry no weight and certainly don’t help the dire lack of dramatic tension. There isn’t so much a plot as a collection of people explaining each other to themselves in an endless loop of exposition and references to forced frictions.

In fact, the only tension generated by this lifeless production, where characters often stand in place waiting for a line delivery, is between the playwright and this damned confusing society we live in. With all the nuance of a bad standup comedian, Greenberg rails against PC culture while claiming a vague moral high ground by featuring a gay character who gets to explain water sports to befuddled elders.

The one noteworthy thing here is the drastic turn towards amorality that happens late in the production. The play’s moral core—around which it self-consciously fusses and frets ad nauseam—starts off in the back-patting middle-aged liberal way most Broadway-adjacent shows extol. In a truly fascinating twist, however, Greenberg turns the play from standard white guilt apologia into a whole-hearted embrace of white privilege and power.

It’s likely that this was not the intended effect, as the play has undergone numerous revisions. But this particular production is either uninterested or unable to condemn its characters’ odious actions, and even the affected parties don’t make much of a fuss. Whether it’s going for a lovingly hateful view of its characters à la Succession is impossible to say, since the two genuinely appalling acts committed in the play’s final moments go unremarked. It’s too bad, but by the final moment, when a door is dramatically swung open, it’s unlikely you’ll want to stick around to remark upon them, either.

Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez is currently pursuing his Masters in Film and Media Studies at Columbia University. He has written film and theatre reviews and features for publications in New York and Boston and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed.

Review: The Perplexed at Manhattan Theatre Club Show Info

Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club

Directed by Lynne Meadow

Written by Richard Greenberg

Scenic Design Santo Loquasto; costume design by Rita Ryack

Lighting Design Kenneth Posner

Sound Design Fitz Patton

Cast includes Patrick Breen, Margaret Colin, Gregg Edelman, Tess Frazer, Anna Itty, Ilana Levine, Eric William Morris, Zane Pais, JD Taylor, Frank Wood

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 2.5 hours


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