by Samuel L. Leiter
If you ever need to answer the question “What has more holes than Swiss cheese?” you can say either “Two slices of Swiss cheese” or Australian playwright Wendy Beckett’s A Better Place, a sieve-like effort being given its world premiere at the Duke under Evan Bergman’s heavy-on-the-pedal helming. Before this underwhelming, overacted comedy begins you may be impressed by David L. Arsenault’s striking set, showing, on one side, a sleek Manhattan apartment with a view in a glass and steel high-rise, and, across a shiny black-tiled span, a just as high, but much smaller flat in an old brick building. Russell H. Champa’s lighting keeps busy following the transitions from one place to the other. Meanwhile, the audience sits in two segments, facing its counterpart on the span’s other side.
The older apartment houses two gay men, Les Covert (Rob Maitner), and his partner, Sel Trevoc (John FitzGibbon). Why they’re given forward and backward versions of each other’s names would be worth pondering only if the play were by a certain other Beckett. Then again, you shouldn’t expect much of a play where someone says of another, “He’s a geek,” and the serious response is, “What difference does it make what country he’s from?” Anyhow, Les loses his job as a waiter and Sel is a philosophy professor who believes their financial situation will improve when he gets tenure. Tenure, he should be reminded, doesn’t alter your income; it merely secures your position. And it sure wouldn’t make enough of a difference for them to give up their rent-controlled pad, small as we’re told it is (it’s hard to tell from the comfy, compact living room we’re shown).
Like James Stewart in Rear Window, albeit without binoculars, Les can’t help covertly (remember his last name?) studying the family (misinterpreting what he sees) living opposite him and wishing he could have their lives.
Helping him greatly are the family’s shadeless floor-to-ceiling windows (their motto must be “fear no more the heat o’ the sun”), and their total ignorance (except for a brief moment) of being visible to people living only a few feet away. The conceit might work if what they do could be comically misunderstood as idyllic; too little of it is, making Les’s perceptions more crazy than amusing.
The family consists of a loud, colorful, Brooklyn-accented, working-class couple in their sixties, John (Edward James Hyland) and Mary Roberts (Judith Hawking), and their self-centered, twenty-eight-year-old daughter, Carol (Jessica DiGiovanni). John plays the horses bigtime (a pick-six win paid the deposit on the apartment); Mary, a shopaholic bottle blonde (costumer Valerie Ramshur provides both women with stylish clothes), holds a blue collar job (her uniform looks like a waitress’s); and Carol refuses to work, convinced her parents are rich enough to support her.
John’s worried about the apartment’s value dropping because a building rising nearby will eventually block the view (as if prospective buyers wouldn’t realize it even at this stage); he keeps having the place assessed yet refuses to sell. Mary, though, wants to sell and retire to Florida. Carol’s apartment fixation, however, is largely sexual; a teeth-grindingly irritating running joke has her hooking up with a series of brokers (all played by Michael Satow) who can arouse her only by spouting sales pitches, like “Park Avenue: gigantic fireplaces, monumental carved doorways, full wrap around me terraces.”
A Better Place’s plot advances when John wins $96,000 on a single race at Belmont and, on his way home, loses his briefcase containing the payout; for those wondering about the size or form of the payout, the bet was placed with bookies, not the track. The money’s loss sets in motion a sequence of egregious coincidences and moral breast-beating you wouldn’t believe even if I told you.
You might also find implausible, once you learn what John does for a living when he’s not gambling, how he’s managed to pay for his $4 million-plus apartment; or how his own daughter has no idea what his actual profession is; or how Mary could be so careless about her OkCupid searches; or how the professorial Sel can cite Zeus’s Olympian spouse as the mortal Penelope instead of the goddess Hera . . .
Enough already. Even if you’re convinced A Better Place looks like Swiss cheese, you still may not be able to swallow it.
A Better Place
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through June 12
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).