By Wendy Beckett; Directed by Evan Bergman
Produced by The Directors Company in association with Pascal Productions
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 6.11.16
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street
by Ken Kaissar on 5.17.16
Edward James Hyland and Judih Hawking in in A Better Place. Photo by Jenny Anderson.
BOTTOM LINE: A well-realized world premiere about the realities of apartment living in New York City.
A Better Place is all about real estate, and so it's appropriately being presented on prime real estate: The Duke on 42nd Street, a state-of-the-art, modern theater complex that is to off Broadway theatre what the luxury, glass hi-rise apartments are to residential New York living. This new play by Wendy Beckett is very fortunate to enjoy a world premiere in this gorgeous theater with an obviously expensive production.
And rightly so. To produce this play on a shoe string budget is to stop short of realizing it. And so the greatest triumph here is David L. Arsenault’s immaculate set design that brings to life the play’s main idea, a comparison between life in a luxury apartment versus a cramped, pre-war walkup one bedroom that old school New Yorkers will recognize and appreciate. The latter is the reason why no self-respecting New Yorker can watch an episode of Friends without scoffing. It captures the realities of middle class life in Manhattan: a foyer that serves as a living room, and a walk-in closet that serves as a bedroom.
The audience enters the spacious, black-box theatre, with seating arranged on both sides of the horizontal stage, to discover two glorious and imposing unit sets facing each other as though to square-off in a competitive sport. On one side is a glass hi-rise, on the other, the cramped one bedroom. One of the great thrills of the evening is simply to enter the theatre and take in this gorgeous feat of design. Arrive early so that you have the time to enjoy it before the action begins. I feel no reticence in expressing that this could be one of the best designed sets I’ve ever seen in an off Broadway show.
In the small apartment we meet Les Covert (Rob Maitner), who occupies the space with his partner Sel Trevoc (John Fitzgibbon). Les spends all of his time pining for the luxury apartment across the street occupied by the Roberts family, whose beautiful home belies their financial situation. John Roberts (Edward James Hyland) is a middle-aged carpenter who has managed to procure his ostentatious abode by the sheer luck of scoring big at the racetrack. His wife Mary (Judith Hawking) wants him to stop pushing his luck and sell the apartment so that they will have enough money with which to retire to Florida, like every other upper class New Yorker. Their daughter Carol (Jessica Digiovanni) is an incorrigible 28 year-old materialist who has never worked a day in her life and is high on the idea of her parents’ wealth. She spends all of her time bringing home a string of sexual partners, all of whom are real estate brokers who bring her to orgasm by spouting off descriptions of luxury Manhattan apartments.
As Les stares at the Roberts apartment, he fantasizes that he is a member of their family. Little does he know that Dad Roberts is within an inch of gambling his way to financial ruin, and that the appearance of wealth cannot always be substantiated with money in the bank.
Director Evan Bergman’s greatest moment is the show’s opening, a carefully staged dumb show that gives us a very clear sense of what life is like in these two apartments. But Bergman’s talent may serve as something of a liability here because there is very little information that is communicated for the remainder of the evening that was not made perfectly clear in the first 30 seconds. This excellent ensemble of actors serves the play well. Hawking, Hyland and Fitzgibbon stand out specifically, and are a joy to watch in this intimate space.
Ultimately, the play is somewhat repetitive. Beckett gives Les Covert more than one speech about how great life would be in a luxury apartment. The only thing Les seems to do in the entire play is to covet his neighbors’ lives, which is not exactly the most riveting action to watch an actor play. And how many times can we watch a beautiful woman achieve full orgasm via the language of a condo brochure? The gag of verbal foreplay is amusing as performed by Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, but it may be a bit overplayed to be satisfying here.
Though the production is aesthetically beautiful, there’s not enough action in the play to captivate the audience’s attention for the full hour and forty minutes. But I do wish MoMA would consider moving the set and presenting it as an installation. It would serve as an interesting comment on life in Manhattan. I could stare at that exhibit all day.
(A Better Place plays at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, through June 11, 2016. The running time is 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $55 and are available at dukeon42.org or by calling 646-223-3010.)
A Better Place is written by Wendy Beckett and directed by Evan Bergman. Set Design is by David L. Arsenault. Costume Design is by Valerie Ramshur. Lighting Design is by Russell H. Champa. Sound Design is by Sam Kusnetz. Properties Design is by Samantha Shoffner. Stage Combat is by Brad Lemons. Stage Managers are Rose Riccardi and Katharine S. Fergerson.
The cast is Judith Hawking, Edward James Hyland, Rob Maitner, John Fitzgibbon, Jessica Digiovanni, and Michael Satow.