A smart and intriguing new play that ultimately does not satisfy despite its fine staging, Dan Cody’s Yacht is the latest among topical dramas regarding privilege and education in modern-day America.
Much like Joshua Harmon’s contentious Admissions and Lucy Thurber’s poignant Transfers, Anthony Giardina’s play touches upon teens from certain socio-economic brackets and their access to a higher education. But Giardina’s story proves to be less concerned with the kids and much more about their ambitious parents.
First, let’s explain the title of this play, which premiered tonight in a handsome production at New York City Center Stage 1. Dan Cody and his yacht are mentioned in The Great Gatsby: In a flashback scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, a teenaged Gatsby climbs aboard Cody’s yacht, becomes the millionaire’s protégé, and learns plenty from him about both living the high life and the low ways to pay for it.
The Great Gatsby is the starting point for this two-act play. Kevin is a wealthy hedge fund executive and single dad whose son, Conor, a junior in high school, flunks a term paper on the novel. Kevin tries and fails to bribe Cara, Conor’s teacher (and a single mom), into providing a passing grade. How and why their personal association soon develops into something much closer is too complicated to explain here, but their growing relationship is not sexually based because Kevin is a matter-of-factly gay man.
Money is key to the story. Cara is anxious to afford living in a better school district (the one in which she teaches) so that Angela, her gifted daughter, can get a decent shot at entering a top college. Kevin, who enjoys playing the financial markets and evidently gets a kick out of educating others on how to do the same, convinces Cara to sink her schoolteacher savings and modest home equity into risky investments.
Some months later, as Cara’s ventures prosper, she runs into conflicts with Angela, who does not want to leave her familiar environment. And Cara’s longtime friends bitterly protest they cannot fit into her swank new social circles. This main narrative also studies the uneasy ties between Kevin and Cara, which in certain aspects faintly echoes the Cody-Gatsby story. The drama is pointed up by yakkity-yak among the characters about the responsibilities of the elite class towards less advantaged people. A secondary thread regards Kevin’s mutually disappointed relationship with his slacker of a son.
In the second act, the markets go haywire and Cara’s investments turn sour. What happens in the aftermath maintains interest. Likewise the characters: Glib, expansive, lonely Kevin, with his unexpectedly, and not entirely credible, altruistic side. Incorruptible, uptight Cara, who does not trust Kevin’s motives but is tempted into economic waters far above her head for the sake of her daughter’s future. Then there is the contrast between ambitious Angela and indolent Conor. These adjectives only partly describe the layered characters, who reveal other facets as the story proceeds.
An ambitious, thoughtful, literate work, Dan Cody’s Yacht does not entirely fulfill the many themes, issues, and moral complications that involve its complex characters. The play ultimately does not register as an organic drama but rather more like a not entirely realized stage version of a novel: The piece somehow is both tantalizingly deep and disappointingly shallow in spots.
Commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club, the drama benefits from the direction of Doug Hughes, who does his utmost to smooth out its uneven quality with a highly capable cast and classy visuals. Rick Holmes confidently portrays Kevin as an arrogant charmer whose darker side sometimes obscures his better, kinder nature. Kristen Bush gives Cara a strong backbone in spirit and posture that gets a bit bent as events initially bolster and then batter her character. Casey Whyland and John Kroft neatly fulfill their respective and underwritten roles as Angela and Conor. Four other good actors, including Jordan Lage, nicely depict minor figures who probably would be more prominent individuals if this story unfolded on the page rather than the stage.
Designer John Lee Beatty employs a turntable to accommodate several locations, both indoors and out. A planked deck and walls suggest the New England locale. A narrow corridor located between the walls that divide the two halves of the turntable is revealed as the stage revolves from one scene to the next; the director unexpectedly uses this neutral space to disclose several of the characters in mute depictions of their moods.
Theatergoers may recall that among several previous plays, Giardina composed The City of Conversation, a cool study in the evolving attitudes of Washington, D.C., political circles, which Lincoln Center Theater produced in 2014. Giardina also has written five novels. Although Dan Cody’s Yacht runs aground upon the varying demands of drama and literature, it nonetheless takes the audience on a fair journey.