nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 23, 2005
The scene from Privilege that people are going to be talking about this spring—I know I'll be telling everybody I know about it—is the one in the second act when Bob Saget shows Harry Zittel and Conor Donovan how to make a bed. Saget plays Ted Harris, a Wall Street financial wizard who is on trial for insider trading; with his millions of dollars of assets now frozen by the feds, Ted is deep in debt, and the family has had to give up their extravagant lifestyle (maid, chauffeur, weekend jaunts to Antigua, etc.) and are now hunkering down in a relatively squalid apartment that for them might as well be on another planet. But there's bravado in the old boy yet as Ted tells his two sons (Porter, 16, and Charlie, 12) that he's an expert on bed-making, thanks to the Swiss nanny he had when he was a boy.
Saget, consummate comic pro that he is, proceeds to make a hysterical shambles of the task: he tears the mattress pad in two, rendering it utterly useless; fails to get the fitted sheets to fit; can't even figure out what order the linen is supposed to be applied. It's hilarious—and then in an instant it's cataclysmic: he orders the boys away from the bed and crumbles, utterly defeated, onto the lower bunk. He cries out: "You idiot! You moron! You loser! You loser!" and the pain in the cry reverberates throughout the theatre. Anybody who ever thought Saget was just a sitcom slacker now knows different. And the stunning humanity of Paul Weitz's intelligent and heartfelt script is never clearer or more resonant.
The fact is, Privilege is a remarkable work, and Second Stage Theatre's production of it—cleanly directed by Peter Askin and featuring, in addition to the aforementioned excellent actors, Carolyn McCormick as Ted's wife, Anna, and Florencia Lozano as their sometime maid, Erla—is superb. It offers a loving but uncompromising look at the destruction wrought on two sons when their dad does something very bad, but it's not so much an indictment of greed (though that's certainly at play here) as a cautionary fable about a very broken family. Neither Ted nor Anna—and they are genuinely smart, loving creatures, in their way—has a clue about parenting; Weitz describes the boys as an autonomous unit within the household rather than dependents being cared for by a mother and father, and that just about covers it. If the arc of Privilege tends toward a traditionally reassuring conclusion, don't be fooled: there's hope for this family, but there's plenty of work to be done as well.
The story is told pretty much entirely from Porter and Charlie's perspectives. Porter, testing limits with his parents as the play begins, becomes Ted's staunch ally; while Charlie, who perhaps doesn't idolize his dad but announces at one point that he wants to be a banker when he grows up, is more or less devastated by events. They're written as plausible kids, and they're beautifully played by Zittel and Donovan, whose chemistry is as perfect as their utter naturalness.
Lozano has great moments as the pragmatic maid Erla, the nurturer that Ted and Anna are at a loss to be. McCormick is fine as Anna, especially in the scenes where maturity and responsibility are creeping up on this once-idealistic woman. Saget, as I've suggested, is colossal. Without ever letting Ted off the hook, he makes him comprehensible and sympathetic.
Privilege is very funny in places and unexpectedly tender and sad in others; throughout it's absolutely genuine, despite the rarefied world that its characters live in and the downright unique transformation that they're forced to undergo. It's a terrific play, and all the more satisfying for being unexpectedly that. It deserves to hang around for a very long time.