by Brian Scott Lipton
Love. Money. Real Estate. These three subjects are constantly on the mind of almost every New Yorker, lending major relevance to Australian playwright Wendy Beckett’s comedy A Better Place, now being produced by The Directors Company at the Duke Theatre. But there’s a better play to be written about these topics than Beckett’s mostly muddled one-act.
The set-up is clever, and well rendered by scenic designer David Arsenault. On one half of the Duke stage (with the audience seated on both sides) is the small pre-war apartment occupied by gay couple Sal (a very good John Fitzgibbon), a graying philosophy professor, and Les (a campy Rob Maitner), a younger (but far from twinkie-like) waiter. They literally face, much to Les’ constant envy, the ultra-modern, spacious pad that is the home of 60-somethings John and Mary Roberts (Edward James Hyland and Judith Hawking) and their sexually-adventurous if infantilized 20-something daughter Carol (an excellent Jessica DiGiovanni).
Les, who turns out to be the quite the voyeur, sees the Roberts’ life as hunky-dory and idealizes them as the family he lost (as we discover in a spectacularly ill-conceived monologue). But appearances deceive: John is a perpetual gambler who won the money for the down payment on a bet and now needs to keep winning for reasons that ultimately become apparent (and which most of the audience has already figured out). Meanwhile, Mary, who is brought brilliantly to full-bodied life by Hawking, would happily trade in her castle in the air for early retirement from her job (I think as a waitress) and a condo in Florida. She wouldn’t mind a little more time with her hubby, either, which explains her (somewhat unbelievable) decision to flirt with younger men on the Internet (though she has no intention of meeting them).
As one can tell, director Evan Bergman has a lot on his hands with this slightly overstuffed play, including a subplot about the briefcase John loses – and Les finds – which contains nearly $100,000. At times, he gets the cast to rise above the material (such as the various encounters between Carol and numerous real estate brokers, all played by the game Michael Satow). But sometimes the lines just fall flat despite their efforts, and the show drags. (It feels considerably longer than its 90 minutes.)
Worst of all, though the fault is mainly Beckett’s, is the portrayal of Sal and Les’ relationship. I don’t believe that these polar opposites would ever stay together more than a week, never mind what we’re meant to believe is a decade. Moreover, the actors don’t connect in any sort of romantic way. They not only seem like an odd couple all right, but I’ve seen Felix Ungers and Oscar Madisons on stage who gave off more homoerotic sparks.
For all its flaws, though, “A Better Place” does accomplish special. No matter where you live (and I’m writing this from my none-too-large studio), the place you really want to head to after seeing it is – home.
A Better Place. Through June 11 at The Duke on 42nd Street (220 West 42nd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). www.ABetterPlacePlay.com
Photos: Jenny Anderson