The Right Kind of People
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 4, 2006
The Right Kind of People, Charles Grodin's new would-be comedy of manners and social conscience, is a disappointment. It's pretty obvious what it wants to accomplish, but I don't think it does so with much art. Throughout, I found myself unwilling or unable to believe what was happening on stage. And in the play's final moments, when Grodin has his protagonist/alter ego wrap the story up by, for the first and only time, addressing the audience directly and delivering an epilogue, I was genuinely distressed that the playwright had simply not worked very hard at his craft.
It takes place in a swank and expensive (but not astronomically so) apartment house on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where the trials and tribulation of the co-op board are followed over the course of a tumultuous year or so. The very likable Robert Stanton plays Tom Rashman, Grodin's stand-in in the play (we know this not only because he has the largest role and is the most sympathetic character on stage, but because Grodin gives him, word-for-word, a scene that he's included in his program note that he says actually happened when he (Grodin) was on a co-op board himself).
Tom is a 30-ish theatrical producer who has just moved into this building at the insistence (and with the behind-the-scenes assistance) of his Uncle Frank, a wealthy entrepreneur who backs most of Tom's shows. Tom, orphaned at a young age, was raised by Frank and his wife and loves him like a father. Frank is one of the leading lights on the building's co-op board, and when a vacancy opens up, he urges Tom to join.
What Tom discovers, not particularly to my surprise, is that the board members are snobbish and self-interested. They relish the power that their positions bring them, and they seldom hesitate to use it in order to make their own lives more comfortable. So when one of the older conservative gentlemen on the board gets nervous when he has to ride up the elevator with a strange African American man (who turns out to be another tenant's employee), he argues that all service personnel must be relegated to the service elevator. And when a rich but unsophisticated Texas couple tries to buy into the building, the screening committee feels entirely justified in turning down these nouveau riche upstarts on the grounds that they won't "fit in" (ergo the play's title).
The moral seems to be that everybody is more bigoted and intolerant than they're willing to admit. A tenants' revolt results in the arrival of a new board midway through the play, and they prove to be even worse than the first group: not just racist, but anti-Semitic as well. What all the board members presented in this play have in common is a robust small-mindedness and a herding instinct that makes them stick together even when it seems counterintuitive that they would do so (this is why I had trouble believing, much of the time, in the reality of these characters).
Troubles between Frank and his wife and, eventually, Frank and Tom, complicate the play without adding much thematically. A never-explained feud between Frank and another board member, the liberal Doug Bernstein, fuels much of the story as well.
The piece is briskly directed by Chris Smith on a unit set that serves, not as comfortably as one might hope, as several different apartments plus the board meeting room (it's decorated in smart, conservative furniture donated by Bloomingdale's that, too, is not as exciting to look at as one might hope). A cast of ten veteran players performs the play confidently, with the standout being Doris Belack, who is terrific in two different roles; her delivery of just two words ("What fun"), in the guise of an elderly waspish busybody on the board, is on target and hilarious, maybe the best line reading anywhere in NYC at the moment.
But even the worthy opportunity of seeing good actors strut their stuff wears thin in Grodin's unsubstantial script. The Right Kind of People's simplistic message is clearly stated by the author in his program note (and pretty much telegraphed by its title)—the 90-minute script is almost beside the point.