Richard Greenberg tends to deal with moral struggles among the rich and famous; Diana Son chronicles similar conflicts among the up-and-coming. Both playwrights unveiled new works this week, with some unexpected similarities. Though Greenberg’s The House in Town, at the Newhouse, takes place in 1929, while Son’s Satellites, at the Public, has a contemporary setting, both are nerve- racking pieces about nerve-racked people: The skill of the writing, along with the mostly excellent productions, constantly holds your interest, but the overall effect tends to wear you down. You admire the work greatly and are very glad to be through with it when you leave.
Clearly, Greenberg and Son, in their different ways, have caught the mood of the moment. Financially, New York is in a boom and a bust at the same time: Money pours in but almost none of it trickles down, while every day jobs get outsourced and rents crunch upward. While the world at large seems headed, lemming-like, for disaster, we teeter on the bustling, frenetic edge of the cliff, with a million unresolved issues and a dozen-plus unreconciled ethnic groups jockeying for position.
Both Greenberg’s and Son’s works take place inside this fevered indeterminacy: Greenberg’s in 1929, at the battling intersection of old WASP money and the mercantile Jewish nouveaux riches; Son’s among today’s new class of techno-trained upscale strivers. Urban geography, in both, is an offshoot of history: Greenberg’s main characters, a Jewish department store owner and his seemingly scatterbrained, high-bred Gentile wife, inhabit an elegant brownstone on “Millionaire’s Row,” the south side of West 23rd Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues, and periodically mutter about the vast, fortress-like London Terrace complex being built across the street, which they firmly expect to lower the neighborhood’s tone. Son’s people, a Korean American architect and her husband, an African American designer of interactive computer programs, are rehabilitating a once elegant brownstone in a Brooklyn neighborhood that’s long been rundown but is now inching back up the real estate ladder, thanks to an influx of yuppies, their arrival greeted with mixed feelings by longtime residents.
The house, in a sense, is both plays’ main character. Greenberg’s work, in which it plays the title role, is graced with another of those John Lee Beatty sets that every audience member instantly wants to reside in. The unluckier Satellites has been granted, in Michael Greif’s production, another annoying sample of Mark Wendland’s fondness for high-tech overbuilding, suggesting a barren warehouse, with rooms that chug noisily on and off stage, lacking any hint of the ruined elegance the characters keep ascribing to it. In Greenberg, the house, decorated in the height of old- fashioned style, seems oppressively gloomy and empty to its inhabitants. In Son, it’s an endless nerve-jangling source of home-improvement farce, as the anxiety-ridden hero (Kevin Carroll) veers between his demanding, driven wife (Sandra Oh) and a perhaps shady neighborhood repair guy (Ron Cephas Jones).
In both plays, too, the wife’s problem is the dramatic focus: These haughty brownstones are new-style dolls’ houses, in which both heroines feel imprisoned. In The House in Town, Amy (Jessica Hecht) is a Saratoga socialite unhappily stuck in a childless, emotionally barren marriage to Sam (Mark Harelik), a brash, workaholic home-furnishings magnate. Problems at home, including Amy’s false-alarm pregnancy and her growing discomfort with Sam’s Jewishness, are mirrored by problems at the store, including Sam’s troubling fascination with a young warehouse clerk (Dan Bittner), a gawkily useless but socially presentable orphan. Greenberg’s historical sense plays him somewhat false: In their stuffy reliance on old prejudices, his characters seem like pre–World War I figures, not those who came into their prime during the ’20s. Prohibition, which put everyone on cordial terms with bootleggers, lowered all manner of social barriers. (And wealthy German Jews, like the Metropolitan Opera’s board chairman Otto Kahn, had by 1929 been fixtures on the edge of New York society for decades.)
For Greenberg’s people, the Roaring Twenties don’t roar, and the Crash that looms ahead isn’t likely to improve matters. Their sedateness in a wild time would be more believable if we had a stronger sense of their inner resources, but this is precisely where Greenberg holds back: Apart from Sam’s repeated declaration of his love for Amy, none of the five characters seem passionate enough about anything to drive the melodrama that ensues when Amy belatedly learns what’s actually going on in her life. Intriguing as much of Greenberg’s dialogue is, and good as the performances are under Doug Hughes’s direction—Hecht, a weighty actress for a flibbertigibbet role, brings Amy a striking mix of emotional colors—the evening gives off an air of insecurity, as if everyone involved were uncertain what came next.
Where Greenberg’s socialites shift in wary puzzlement, Son’s contemporary types are in frazzled pursuit of the identity they all seem to feel they lack. Her heroine, Nina (portrayed by Oh with sweet forcefulness), is a have-it-all gal for whom “all” never seems to add up. Pursuing a big job with her partner (Johanna Day) from an office in the basement of her endlessly in-process new home, she tries to leave the renovations to her between-jobs husband (whom Carroll makes touchingly believable), and her baby to a Korean-speaking nanny (Satya Lee). But the nanny has troubling ways and even more troubling prejudices, while hubby’s entangled in a convoluted relationship with his adoptive brother (Clarke Thorell), another shady character. With family, job, house, and ethnic-identity pressures all beleaguering Nina, something else besides the brownstone’s extra-large picture window is clearly going to crack.
Son’s way of turning the climactic crackup into a peaceful resolution seems both arbitrary and rushed, but until then her writing is rarely false and often flavorsome, its feeling of truthfulness abetted by Michael Greif’s breakneck-paced but always strongly focused production. None of Son’s dense-packed details, by the way, explain her title. The jittery unease crammed into both these plays presumably leaves authors little time to reflect on such matters calmly.