The Wrong Kind of People: I’m Farmisht With Charles Grodin!

022006 article heilpern2 The Wrong Kind of People:  I’m Farmisht With Charles Grodin!Charles Grodin has written a play about co-op board meetings in a Fifth Avenue building. Second only to writing a play about potato farming in Idaho, I’m not sure Mr. Grodin’s idea is quite so exciting as it may seem.

It could be that I have a bias against the small dramas of members of East Side co-op boards, in which case the kindly Mr. Grodin will surely forgive me. And so, I trust, will his children. And his children’s children. But who is his new play, The Right Kind of People, for—except board members of East Side co-ops? Even then, I can’t be certain.

According to Mr. Grodin, East Side co-op board members are very picky people, particularly when they live in a landmarked building as the characters in his play do. For one thing, they wouldn’t appreciate the East Side apartments onstage at 59E59 Theaters. They would take one look at them and say they simply aren’t what they’re accustomed to. No apartment in the play is worth $15 million or $20 million. Or even a paltry $5 million.

For one thing, they don’t have a view of the park. They have a view of the audience. The audience is sound asleep, or worse, nodding, but the audience isn’t to blame. The meager apartments onstage are firstly represented by a schleppy sofa with an armchair and two chairs facing out to the auditorium in a row. (A third chair may be used when necessary.) Behind is another “luxury” apartment with a small coffee table, a drinks cabinet and two chairs. The other sterile little place on view has an all-purpose dining table and several chairs.

In other unappetizing words, we are looking at a furniture showroom. No one has ever lived there, and no one would wish to. The bad showroom set is visited by various elderly white people carrying files who sit in different areas and bicker a lot about the acceptable height of dogs in their building, dogs who eat dogs, the desirable age of children, or what one character describes as “the black man in the elevator thing.” And all of that might be fine, if not the answer to the mystery of the universe, provided there were evidence of any energy or life onstage.

Mr. Grodin is in earnest, however, and so was Abe Lincoln. The playwright quotes Lincoln in the playbill: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Or as Mrs. Lincoln is believed to have replied, “That’s all very well, Abe, but what do you know about the problems of East Side co-ops, eh?”

Not as much as Mr. Grodin, that’s for sure. Mr. Grodin also informs us in the Playbill that he served on a Fifth Avenue co-op board for several years in the 80’s and 90’s. “Early on,” he writes in “A Note from the Playwright,” “a board member casually commented that a prospective buyer clearly bought his clothes off the rack. I said, ‘I get my clothes off the rack.’ The board member said, ‘I know.’ When I realized that none of this was meant to be amusing, the idea of a play was born.”

Or as Einstein said, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” The decisive line—“I get my clothes off the rack”—is repeated in the play by the bewildered new member of the board, Tom Rashman (described by Mr. Grodin cryptically in his script as “40’s, intelligent, dry wit”). Compared to Tom, most of the board members are no longer in the spring of youth. Well-meaning folk ask why theater audiences aren’t getting any younger nowadays. The Right Kind of People is an answer.

There’s Tom’s uncle, Frank, described by Mr. Grodin as “60’s, an aggressive, edgy man capable of great warmth”; Doug Bernstein, “an amiable man, 50’s, 60’s, with an easy humor and a surprising tough side”; Coles Lange—a WASP, we presume—who’s in his 70’s; and Mrs. Butler, “a highly emotional, explosive woman in her 60’s.” Then there’s Mr. Barret “a gray-haired man in his 60’s with a short fuse,” someone else in his 60’s who’s “a bulldog,” and the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg, who haven’t “in any way tried to hide their Jewishness. They are warm and friendly.”

The Goldbergs are prospective buyers. The audience giggles when they enter looking warm and friendly and, well, Jewish, to be interviewed by the co-op board. Mr. Goldberg is wearing a yarmulke. The audience knows that the sole owner of Goldberg Apparel in 25 cities isn’t going to get into the building. And so does Coles Lange, to whom the words shmatte and farmisht are a foreign language, which indeed they are.

Much comedy is meant to take place, accompanied by serious undertones. But neither happens. What happens is a snooze. It is Mr. Grodin’s intention to show us that “many of us have more biases than we might be comfortable to admit.” Mr. Grodin must speak for himself. But all he has to offer us is a sleepy impression of foolish people with too much time on their hands. The action, such as it is, also involves a lame coup d’etat when a rival board takes over the building, and a soap-opera subplot when “drily witty” Tom, a neophyte theater producer, rebels against his uncle, the “edgy but capable of great warmth” Sam. Tom’s play, a moral fable about the Civil War, is cancelled.

That’s a shame. But the civil wars within The Right Kind of People are phony little wars of yammering inconsequence. Like the perennial New York magazine story on co-ops, unfortunately, Mr. Grodin tells us nothing we don’t already know—or would care to know. Worse, he tells it very s…l…o…w…l…y.

Wasn’t it Abe Lincoln who said, “Pick up the pace, for God’s sake”? Perhaps it wasn’t Abe Lincoln. Perhaps it was me. It’s said by theater people that if you want to know the rhythm of a play, listen to its playwright speak. It isn’t a foolproof method, but to be in Harold Pinter’s company, for example, is to find yourself appearing in one of his understated plays. The reticent Mr. Pinter speaks as his characters speak, and you end up doing the same. Now, it so happens that whenever I’ve seen Mr. Grodin on television, he seems to be living on another planet. There’s a glazed disconnect going on within him in the name of “wryness.” His strange, prolonged pauses can make you feel uncomfortable, as if he’s lost the plot. He tends to speak deliberately and s…l…o…w…l…y.

I don’t know whether Mr. Grodin’s odd persona is the reason for the peculiarly slow pace of the evening. But its rhythm is beyond sluggish. It’s funereal. I’ve never known anything quite like it, particularly for what is meant to be a breezy comedy. I’ve seen Robert Stanton (who plays Tom) shine in a number of productions. But he’s strangely ill at ease here, as if he doesn’t know whom he’s meant to be playing, or why. Nor would you, if you were he. Most of the seasoned cast appear to be weirdly hesitant, too. But if they spoke at a normal pace, Mr. Grodin’s already-slender 80-minute play would last—I promise you—a merciful hour.

The director is Chris Smith, and the set is designed by Annie Smart. The Right Kind of People is believed to have been successful at the Magic Theater in San Francisco.