When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for the tenants of a posh Fifth Avenue co-op building to overthrow its board, as is the case in Charles Grodin’s well-heeled comedy The Right Kind of People, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes:
The Board has refused all prospective tenants who are black, Jewish, or nouveau riche.
The Board has levied a $100,000 assessment for each apartment.
The Board is generally insufferable.
Tom Rashman (Robert Stanton), a fortyish theatrical producer, resides at one such address, and thanks to the influence of his Uncle Frank (Edwin C. Owens), he has joined its venerable board. The play charts Tom’s disenchantment with the board, his beloved uncle, and finally co-operative buildings themselves. The board’s resident nudnik Doug Bernstein (Mitchell Greenberg) awakens Tom to its prevailing bigotry. Not hard to do: At one meeting, the board discusses the problem of black men riding in the front elevators. Sure, they’ve passed muster with the doorman and have legitimate reasons for being there, but they might scare the ladies. Heaven forfend!
In his author’s note, Grodin bravely reveals that he once served on such a board and knows whereof he speaks. Indeed, he occasionally quotes verbatim. The verisimilitude somewhat excuses the complacency of the play and the blatancy of its targets. There’s not much in the way of moral middle ground when even the new and supposedly revolutionary board passes measures banning children and pets and rejects a pair of buyers for being too Jewish. They have the savor “of the garment district,” one member of the screening committee explains. “Garmento,” grimly intones another.
Grodin’s an indelibly clever writer, but he steers quite clear of ethical gray areas and largely fails to explore the assumptions of privilege which underlie Fifth Avenue living itself. This is, after all, a play in which a character’s supreme act of rebellion is to move to an ostensibly handsome house in Connecticut. And though Tom’s estrangement from his uncle (achieved when he joins the new board) is not without poignancy, it also smacks of generic cliché. It’s solely the presence of petite cellular phones that sets The Right Kind of People in the 21st century and not at any time since the mid ’60s. Indeed, though the play is consistently entertaining, it suffers from just the sort of oppressive tastefulness and unadventurousness as its set’s furniture, which Bloomingdale’s values at $14,650 and plans to auction after the final performance, for the benefit of producing company Primary Stages. “The right kind of person always has the right kind of furniture,” reads the ad copy. But shouldn’t he also have a more challenging satire?