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A CurtainUp Review
Dan Cody's Yacht
By Elyse Sommer
Dan Cody and his yacht represent a key event in Jay Gatsby's life. But Anthony Giardina's play Dan Cody's Yacht , now in its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I, is not a re-titled, trendy stage version of the novel.
Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby — his habit of making lists to insure the success that became his driving ambition after meeting the yacht's owner — is indeed a hovering presence in Mr. Giardina's entertaining but somewhat wrong-headed new play. What he's done is to use part of the novel's sixth chapter for his own take on the increasingly unbalanced access to the American Dream, especially as it affects students in poor neighborhoods.
The fact that the play's Gatsby-inspired anti-hero comes from the tricky world of finance adds a fresh twist to a recent flurry new plays about tensions pertaining to the handling and mishandling of equal educational opportunities— notably Pipeline, Admissions. and Transfers
The script of Dan Cody's Yacht, like Giardina's s 2014 City of Conversation , hooks you in. In fact, it keeps you sufficiently interested and entertained that it's not until Mr. Giardina has wound up the inter-connected situations he's set up that the unfilled plot holes and inconsistencies start to niggle.
The two acts, each featuring half a dozen scenes, span two-years (2014 to 2016) that take us to various locations in two neighboring Massachusetts exurbs of Boston —Stillwell, which is populated by members of the high earning, one-percenters living the American Dream and Patchett, a less economically stable working class town. The scenario revolves around an attempt to bridge the inequality gap by merging the two school districts. That story is personalized through the uneasy relationship that develops between two people who obviously disagree on which way the vote should go: Cara Russo (Kristen Bush in a finely nuanced performance) and Kevin O'Neill (Rick Holmes, making the most of being a leading rather support player).
As an English teacher at Stillwell High School, but a Patchett resident who'd like to see students like her daughter enjoy the benefits of the well funded Stillwell school, Bush's Cara is quite different from the manipulative all-about-Eve character she played in City of Conversation. Holmes too does a turnabout from his last role, as the most emotionally engaging good guy in Junk. He's now more like that play's financial finaglers, an at once attractive and repelling anti-hero.
Cara and Kevin's first meeting is at a parent-teacher conference. Though he can't persuade her to change his slacker son Conor's (John Kroft) failing grade he does tempt her with his offer to help her earn enough money to give her daughter a leg up into a good college. Since these are single parents what follows would in many plays be a romance, but Kevin is openly gay, so the sizzle in their relationship is triggered by a different kind of hunger.
Of course, Kevin's tempting offer takes root and Cara is seduced into letting him invest her money. As for their differences about the school merger, he justifies his opposition with "what we do, Cara Russo, is we vote for all the good things, and at the same time, we load up our boat and head for the deep water. The safe water. We do this for our children."
And so, we see Cara reluctantly becoming a member of Kevin's exclusive little investment group and her improved finances fueling her hunger to have her smart daughter Angela (Casey Whyland) finish high school in Stillwell — that's whether the merger is voted in or not. That hunger, as Kevin sees it, is missing from the kids he sees when driving around her town and is what drove him as a poor kid to, like his fictional role model, find powerful men like Dan Cody and "row out to their yacht."
The Stillwell-Patchett merger plan has many failed and successful counterparts in real life, as do the ups and downs of the stock market. Thus the outcome of the vote and Cara's plan for Angela's transfer to Stillwell High ratchett up the plot's complications. While the focus throughout is on Cara and Kevin, some of the most insightful and impressive turns come from Cara's daughter Angela (Casey Whyland) and Kevin's son Conor (John Kroft).
John Kroft taps into the persona of the smart and observant young man just waiting to emerge from beneath the slacker surface. This is especially evident in an amusing scene in which he and Angela are thrown together at a picnic with their respective parents. His explanation of his father's obsessive interest in her and her mother is especially trenchant: "I actually think there's something else. About your mother. You know how sometimes old people, they go to Haiti, they go to Africa, they feel like they need to do something good in the world before they die. Even if its all just coming out of their boredom, they feel like they need to do . . .I think maybe your Mom is my Dad's Haiti."
Newcomer Casey Whyland also has some strong moments and she gets to quite touchingly sum up the play's theme in her graduation poem "Trees." ("We find it amazing that one tree will help another/But is it such a feat?/Many do the same/A mother changes her life to help a struggling child/An alpha wolf lies next to the runt of the litter/Why are these not reveled in?"). I'll leave it to you to find out at which school she delivers it.
The casting of Whyland is an apparent response to a script direction for an Angela who's "not unpretty" and perhaps "a bit overweight." A couple of references to her indugence in high calorie Starbucks drinks eating meals like those served in the fast food restaurant where she works part-time, are obviously intended to point out yet another downside of life in families headed by mothers too poor and busy to serve and supervise healthier diets — actually, Cara's salary puts her more into statististicians' designation of middle class Americans than the lowest level.
Another well defined secondary character is Cara's Patchett friend Cathy (Roxanma Hope Radja) who represents those people in Patchett for whom leaving their underfunded, underachieving school for the elite one across the river means a loss of self esteem. A scene in which the two women have lunch in a fancy Stillwell restaurant nicely reveals the effect of Cara's decisions on their friendship.
Fortunately Director Dough Hughes who also directed City of Conversation has brought some of his designers along for this production. John Lee Beatty's rotating set is a stunner, with each scene ending with the current locale spinning around to the next, and the space between each set's walls creating a passageway that also shows a character moving forward to the next part part of the story. There are eight different locales to visually support the play's dozen scenes. Add Catherine Zuber's costumes, Jen Schriever's costumes and Fitz Patton's original music and sound design and there's no faulting Manhattan Theater Club for going all out to provide audiences with a visually rich two hours of theater.
The play's assets notwithstanding there are those plot holes and inconsistencies mentioned earlier.
For starters, there's kevin's custodianship of his son. I have no problem with the playwright's not giving any details about Kevin's current personal life. His being gay does make sense for his and Cara's money and class propelled relationship. Kevin explains that he left his wife ten years ago because it was time to stop leading a double life. But she's not dead; neither is there any mention of her being handicapped. So aren't we owed some explanation about how and why he came to be the one raising Conor?
It's understandable that Kevin's Gatsby-esque ideas of success would be fixated on Ivy League colleges as the only path to a good life. However, its not as believable for Cara, a smart educator with a middle class rather than poverty level income, to not know about grants and scholarships and good schools available to students like Angela.
The school merger is also problematic. Anyone who's followed such consolidations in the interest of diversity and better use of under utilized and/or under-achieving schools, knows that this usually requires extensive changes to the physical plants. Stillwell High School may be well maintained and funded but surely it would require some sort of physical addition to accommodate the Patchett school. There seems no plan to actually make this a back-and-forth merger between the two schools. True, this isn't a documentary about such situations, but as Jay Gatsby might put it "yes, old sport, a few clarifying details would help.
And speaking of that ever timely novel, it's still in print and available free for e-reading at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/fitzgerald/f_scott/gatsby/
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Dan Cody's Yacht by Anthony Giardina
Directed by Doug Hughes
Cast: Kristen Bush (Cara Russo), Meredith Forlenza (Pamela Hossmer), Laura Kai Chen (Alice Tuan), Rick Holmes (Kevin O'Neill), Roxanna Hope Radja (Cathy Conz), John Kroft (Conor O'Neill), Jordan Lage (Joff Hossner) Casey Whyland (Angela Russo)
Sets: John Lee Beatty
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Original music and sound: Fitz Patton
Dialect Coach: Ben Furey
Stage Manager: Stephen Ravet
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I at City Center 131 West 55th Street
From 5/15/18; opening 6/06/18; closing 7/08/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 2nd press preview
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