(l to r) Rick Holmes, Jordan Lage, Meredith Forlenza, Kristen Bush, and Laura Kai Chen in ‘Dan Cody’s Yacht.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Tis the season for sheepskin and mortarboards, time for another drama about the annual rite of getting into the college of one’s dreams. Last season we had Admissions and Transfers. The newest addition is Anthony Giardina’s Dan Cody’s Yacht, at MTC’s City Center Stage I, an engaging if schematic and occasionally overwrought dramatization of the ethical dilemmas faced by a financially strapped mother seeking the best education for her gifted daughter.
Giardina (City of Conversation) sets the action between 2014 and 2016 in two fictional suburban towns near Boston, Stillwell, a bastion of privilege, and Patchett, the other side of the tracks (or river, in this case). Cara Russo (Kristen Bush) is a single mom who lives with her daughter, Angela (Casey Whyland), in Patchett, where the latter, a talented poet, is a high school junior.
Cara teaches English at the much better Stillwell High, where she’s given an F to Conor O’Neill (John Kroft) for his essay on The Great Gatsby. That novel, we’ll discover, is also the inspiration for the play’s title, based on a secondary character whose yacht introduces young James Gatz to the rewards of a gold-plated life.
The play begins in Cara’s classroom, where Conor’s single dad, Kevin (Rick Holmes), an attractive, quick-talking investor, reminiscent of Bobby Axelrod on TV’s “Billions,” tries to bribe Cara into giving his slacker kid a better grade. Kevin’s aware of Cara’s financial needs but, despite his aggressive charm and her own weak finances, Cara struggles to remain incorruptible. (Giardina prevents us from getting sidetracked by the potential romance between the handsome Kevin and the beautiful Cara by having Kevin tell her he’s gay. As in real life.)
Cara won’t take cash to change Conor’s grade but she accepts an invitation to Kevin’s house, where she meets his well-off, self-involved, investor friends, Jeff (Jordan Lage), Pamela Hossmer (Meredith Forlenza), and Alice Tuan (Laura Kai Chen). In one of the most interesting scenes, Kevin scrutinizes Cara’s income and expenses. This prompts Cara to let Kevin—who thrives on speculation—handle her money. The decision reaps a significant return but, as Cara learns, there’s a reason such investments are called high risk.
Eventually, Kevin’s suggestion regarding a legally questionable way to restore her funds will again test Cara’s corruptibility. It will also cause us to wonder just what makes Kevin so determined to help this woman and her kid: Some devious ulterior motive? The goodness of his heart? It’s a conundrum Giardina never answers.
Mixed in with their financial relationship are Kevin and Cara’s clashing viewpoints on a planned merger of the Stillwell and Patchett school districts, a move he opposes and she favors. There’s also the overblown disappointment of Cathy Conz (Roxana Hope Radia), Cara’s loud, Boston-accented friend, at the newly well-off Cara’s plan to move to Stillwell, which she fears will break their bond.
Giardina, of course, exploits the parent-child tensions of his principals: the disappointed Kevin argues with the unambitious Conor over his privileged son’s mediocre grades and ambiguous future, while the anxious Cara fights with her less-privileged daughter regarding the move to Stillwell, where she can improve her chances of getting into Vassar.
Interestingly, in a play about having enough money to attend the best schools, no one questions the financial feasibility of a poet’s career. Also, as typical in these plays, community colleges and public universities get the shaft as if anything short of Ivy League level will forever hinder one’s opportunities.
Under Doug Hughes’s otherwise sharp direction, the arguments tend to grow from teapot tempests into emotional hurricanes. While it’s conceivable, for example, that Angela might rebel against moving from her familiar surroundings to where she’d at first be ill at ease, it’s hard to sympathize with this otherwise mature, savvy, and articulate girl when she screams like a 12-year-old that she won’t “know a soul” at Stillwell.
John Lee Beatty contributes one of his typically classy sets, lovingly lit by Jen Schriever, its walls of horizontal planking changing configurations for the multiple locales brought into view on a revolving stage. Catherine Zuber’s costumes look correct, and Fitz Patton’s mostly beat-heavy music enhances the frequent shifts.
Most of the cast acquits itself well, with Holmes’s slick but inwardly troubled Kevin and Bush’s morally conflicted, maternally devoted Cara being standouts. The beanpole Kroft and the chubby Whyland, both fine actors, are oddly cast as the kids. Even if you accept them as believable 16- or 17-year-olds (a stretch), I doubt you’d pick either from a lineup as the offspring of the glossy lookers who play their parents.
Dan Cody’s Yacht navigates morally choppy waters, but too often with mildly queasy results.
Dan Cody’s Yacht
City Center Stage I (Manhattan Theatre Club)
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through July 8
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz , and Theater Life.