Rich versus poor, the haves versus the have-nots, upper class opportunity versus the opposite. All have provided dramatic fodder since long before the days of affirmative action. Just look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: back in 1925, the novelist placed his hero on the shore looking yearningly at a yacht owned by millionaire Dan Cody, which serves at the acorn from which Anthony Giardina has sprouted Dan Cody’s Yacht at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Giardina and his characters are in a new century, yes, a world far removed from Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. Here, the shore line is the border between Stillwell and Patchett, fictional Boston suburbs. No yacht here, either; the prize is admission to a prestigious Ivy League college, with the poor-but-rich student at the fancy private school matched against the worthy class poet from public high who works after hours at the French fry fryer. There was a time when the latter might well have won the race. (Remember The Corn Is Green, anyone?) But in contemporary America, In Hedgefunds We Trust.
The new drama is a match of wits. Cara Russo (Kristen Bush) is an English teacher at the private school, although she lives on the wrong side of the tracks. Kevin O’Neill (Rick Holmes) is an investment banker on the private school board. Both are single parents; refreshingly, the author avoids having the adults, or even their 16-year-olds, couple. The tussle is over the “F” that Cara gives Conor (John Kroft) on his Gatsby paper and what the grade will do to his college application. Kevin lays his cards, or rather his C-notes, on the table, but Cara will not bite. Or will she? And is Cara turning too high-tone for her old working-class ties?
Dan Cody’s Yacht is a play that I quite liked, and I can only wish that I liked it more. Giardina is an accomplished theater writer, as those of us fortunate enough to have seen his The City of Conversation at Lincoln Center Theater in 2014 can attest. (That’s the one where the Washington hostess—as portrayed by the late Jan Maxwell, in perhaps her greatest performance—fought against segregated country clubs in the Carter years in the first act; battled the Bork nomination in the second; and celebrated Obama’s inauguration in the third.)
On the present occasion, Giardina provides interesting characters, an interesting thesis, and always entertaining dialogue. Somehow, though, it doesn’t add up. There is a lack of focus in the argument, a lack of propulsion, and a surfeit of running time. Most oddly, the thrust of the play becomes quite different—and considerably more engrossing—midway through, as we (and the playwright?) discover that Cara’s ungainly daughter Angela (Casey Whyland) is at the play’s core. Too late, alas.
Director Doug Hughes gets some very good performances from his leading players: Holmes, recently the industrialist who mortgaged the family business in Ayad Akhtar’s Junk; and Bush, well-remembered as the villainous daughter-in-law lobbyist in The City of Conversation. The non-couple play a fascinating cat-and-mouse game, with both readily admitting that the mouse is superior in all respects other than financial. They also do well conveying the unexpressed sexual attraction as single parents with spouses who are long gone. He identifies himself as gay, yes; but can Cara (or us) quite believe anything he says?
Whyland, who 10 years back was one of those ungainly ballet girls in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot, is very good as the daughter. Not only does she fit the standard ugly duckling-who-turns-into-valedictorian mode; she has a searing scene with the mother and two unusual (and unusually good) scenes with son (on a felled tree) and father (with Frappucino). All this, plus a graduation speech that caps off the evening. Whyland starts off almost cartoonishly as this slovenly teen—the text describes her as plain and “perhaps a bit overweight”—but develops a wonderful and moving performance.
Hughes is also abetted (as is not uncommon) by designer John Lee Beatty, in what we are told is his 70th set for Manhattan Theatre Club. Beatty gives us one of those plays anchored on a full stage turntable, dissected by a wall separating one side from the other. This can prove disruptive as the stage turns round and round, as currently with the Higgins unit at My Fair Lady (where we can’t get from one room to another without going through the entire house every single time, sometimes twice within a musical number). Beatty and Hughes make especially canny use of their turntable here, with a narrow hallway between the inner walls: Rather than simply waiting for the set to change, we watch characters progressing “into” the next scene as the stage turns.
We have seen more than a few recent plays about the unfairness of privileged students in the application process, most notably Joshua Harmon’s blistering Admissions. Anthony Giardina’s Dan Cody’s Yacht is well-intentioned and likable-enough, yes; but as a play, it isn’t quite ready for early admission.
Dan Cody’s Yacht opened June 6, 2018 at City Center Stage 1 and runs through July 8. Tickets and information: manhattantheatreclub.com