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A CurtainUp Review
A Better Place
By Charles Wright
Les (Rob Maitner) is an unemployed waiter who lives in a down-at-heels, rent-controlled walk-up on New York's Upper West Side. His domestic partner, Sel (John Fitzgibbn), is a philosophy instructor who dreams of tenure (despite appearing to be somewhat past retirement age) and moonlights as a waiter.
Les spends his idle hours (of which he has many) peering into the floor-to-ceiling windows of an apartment in a nearby luxury high-rise and brooding over his penury. Behind those windows, the Roberts family — father John (Edward James Hyland), mother Mary (Judith Hawking) and daughter Carol (Jessica DiGiovanni) — performs an unwitting pantomime that convinces Les they're leading lives of joy and racy abandon. But the audience of A Better Place, privy to what's being said in the Roberts' exquisite apartment, knows better.
In addition to the five actors mentioned above, the cast of A Better Place includes Michael Satow who plays various small, thankless roles but, most notably, a real-estate broker whose efficient foreplay with daughter Carol involves erotically intoned phrases from real-estate brochures ("impeccably renovated," "fully restored," "museum quality," "overlooks the park," and "hardwood floors").
A Better Place begins with an amusing premise but swiftly runs amok. Despite the six actors' valiant efforts, Beckett's characters seldom behave in ways that are psychologically credible and the prolix dialogue is, by and large, devoid of verisimilitude.
The non-profit Directors Company, noted for having developed Bat Boy: The Musical almost 20 years ago, has given A Better Place a handsome production. Scenic designer David L.Arsenault stresses the disparity of living conditions within a single block in New York City by placing the two apartments on platforms near each other but with a gaping space between them. (A couple of scenes away from the apartments are played in that space.) Les's apartment is all clutter, gemutlich but shabby; the Roberts place, with its steel and glass, has clean lines and a few sleek furnishings. Russell H. Champa ensures smooth transitions from scene to scene — and there are many scenes — with a lighting plot that eases the action from one part of the day to another.
Beckett is an Australian dramatist who should not be confused with the South African born, Oxford-educated nun of the same name whose eccentric BBC documentaries on art history are staples of public-broadcasting fund drives. Playwright Beckett is the author of two previous Off-Broadway plays, one about Anais Nin and the other about Italian photographer Tina Modotti. This third, alas, is not a charm.