More Stagely Mansions

In the theater, the "house" is the audience, the reference point to which the stage, however representational, always has to return. Realism didn't begin building things that resembled actual houses onstage till the 1840s, when T.W. Robertson's Caste started the vogue for doors that slammed and staircases that creaked. Ibsen and his followers put meaning into the onstage house; a countermovement led by Strindberg, which Ibsen himself joined in his late plays, invented the rest of modern drama by striving mightily to tear it down.

The real house lasted longer on old, stubborn, money-centered Broadway than anywhere else in the Western theater. As a sense of the Absurd began to creep even into Broadway drama in the 1960s, realist set design found ways to accommodate it, turning ordinary rooms into epically surreal collections of junk, or even more epic exaggerations of splendor and size. In this latter realm, the prizewinner was William Ritman, who designed the first productions of many Albee plays. Any designer could turn out an elegant upper-class room; Ritman's were positively palatial: The moment the curtain rose on one of his cold, giant, marble and wrought-iron spaces, you knew you couldn't afford to live there.

Neither Thomas Lynch nor John Arnone, responsible for the settings of Wendy Wasserstein's Old Money and Albee's Tiny Alice respectively, has previously been an aspirant to Ritman's spatial grandeur—Lynch is more often a mischievous wit, Arnone a free-form conceptualist. But both plays demand epic housing—each being, in fact, more about a place than about its inhabitants. So bring on the architecture: Neither theater is the ideal spot for mansion-building, but both designers have extended themselves splendiferously. Second Stage doesn't have anywhere near as high a proscenium arch as Arnone's glimmering dark corridors and curved marble-and-gilt side walls might make you think. And the lovely oak-paneled staircase that Lynch has angled across the back wall of the Newhouse really isn't taking the actors any higher than the auditorium doors, though it looks like they're heading up Everest. Both events are anchored by the bigness and beauty of an old house—plus a certain childish glee at having such an expensive object to play in.

Recline of the West: Laila Robins and model in Tiny Alice
photo: T. Charles Erickson
Recline of the West: Laila Robins and model in Tiny Alice

Details

Old Money
By Wendy Wasserstein
Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center 212-239-6200

Tiny Alice
By Edward Albee
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street
212-246-4422

It duly transpires, too, that childish glee and money form the dialectical matrix of both plays. Wasserstein, the cagey good child, blurts out the two themes openly, stitching a light busywork embroidery of social comedy out of their constant crisscrossings over time. Pulling no pretentious poses and digging to no depths, she makes her skillful superficiality thoroughly entertaining, for the first time since The Heidi Chronicles. In contrast, Albee's work, still murky 35 years after its premiere, is clearly a naughty child's creation: dense, cynical, and sordid, probably coming from a far deeper place in the childish psyche; even its brashest bright moments have the ominous, mildewed air of art that's been locked in a closet for being too wicked to display.

The title of Old Money is a joke, for Wasserstein's premise is that, at least in New York, every era's social leaders are the previous era's nouveaux riches. She dramatizes this by installing Bernstein, one of Wall Street's newest arbitrage billionaires, in the last surviving privately owned townhouse by an eminent fin de siècle architect. When the recently widowed Bernstein gives a party, his guests, who include his embittered artist sister-in-law and the original tenant's now-elderly, ineffectual son, inevitably mingle with the ghosts of visitors past, to show that what goes around comes around. Bernstein's 1917 counterpart is one of the department-store Strausses, barred from a museum board by the foulmouthed coal baron who built the mansion, in which the coal baron's millennial counterpart, a toxic movie producer named Nercessian, will lobby Bernstein to get him on the same museum board. A dozen such parallel actions cross and tangle through the evening. Closely scrutinized, many of them don't hold water, but there are too many, patterned too ingeniously, for close scrutiny.

Stoppard's Arcadia has been thrown in Wasserstein's face a good deal, but a more accurate comparison would be Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing, in which an elderly high-society nonconformist gets the elegant shocks of the past mixed up with today's rowdiness. (Stoppard's play has other matters on its mind, and its two crisscrossing eras neither interact nor parallel each other.) Like Howe, Wasserstein shows society in both eras having hang-ups about women's roles and about fully accepting Jews. Everyone in Wasserstein's cast doubles, and one of director Mark Brokaw's slyer gestures is to cast the Asian American actress Jodi Long as the 1917 dowager who spouts the standard anti-Semitic clichés—"You people do stick together" and so on—though her look, complete with marcelled wig, suggests a Soong sister rather than an Astor. Wasserstein knows how to play her dual saga lightly, touching in stings of poignance as needed; Brokaw keeps his largely appealing cast scampering through them with visible and contagious delight. Mark Harelik and Dan Butler, as the sensitive rich Jew and his coarse nemesis, Long and Kathryn Meisle as the women fighting to stay in their lives, all deliver strongly anchored, flavorsome performances. The evening's stolen, however, by Mary Beth Hurt, who tackles the two most nakedly factitious roles, that embittered artist and a wacky 1917 doyenne, in a pure spirit of playful dress-up that gives her stature even while costumed as a lobster. Scrutiny reveals that even Lynch's set has a childlike implausibility: The scene is an isolated smoking room—which just happens to contain a grand staircase and the only entrance to the garden, though none of the celebrities whose names are dropped ever pass through it. Like the script's role-switching, this trickery reaffirms what may be the play's buried point: that the desire to accumulate wealth is itself a kind of kiddy game, based on needy children's fantasies. How funny, under the circumstances, that we have any respect for wealth at all.

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