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EASTERN STANDARD

Apple Tree Theatre Company

Theater may not cure a culture but it's a good indicator of what ails it. An antiyuppie backlash was inevitable, but Eastern Standard makes it seem as predictable as a pendulum. An easy indictment of entrenched selfishness, Richard Greenberg's 1988 life-style comedy is familiar without being convincing.

In this all-too-neatly-set-up play, one pair of the characters conveniently hold the keys to another's happiness; it's just a matter of matching keys with locks. The first act, set in a trendy midtown Manhattan restaurant, brings the halves together. Stephen is a disillusioned architect who's tired of wrecking New York with soulless edifices ("Talent becomes a nightmare when you hate what you're doing"). Stephen's dinner companion is his gay chum Drew, a bitter painter (with, according to Stephen, a "reflex of belittlement") who desperately longs for a lover. Providentially, at the next table are Phoebe, a Wall Street financial analyst--the woman Stephen has adored from afar for weeks--and her handsome gay brother Peter, a disgruntled TV programmer. Peter tells Phoebe he has AIDS; he wants to go somewhere where no one knows him and where he can just disappear.

Unwittingly, the other characters--Ellen, a kindhearted waitress, and May, a foulmouthed bag lady--rearrange these relationships. Soon Drew has struck up an acquaintance with Peter, the man of his wet dreams, and Stephen has met his beloved Pheobe.

In the second act all six arrive at Stephen's swank summer home, through more contrivances not worth considering. Uplifted by his love for Phoebe, Stephen--who calls himself "the ultimate bleeding-heart liberal"--decides to launch a new career designing housing for the homeless. Phoebe hopes to break free of Wall Street and her crooked former lover. Drew's ardor overwhelms proud Peter, who remains reluctant to admit his mortality. And the four achieve what Stephen calls life's "sadly infrequent accidental happinesses" (ramming home the moral in case we were dozing).

Even the characters acknowledge the contrivances. As one of them puts it, "These utopian scenarios tend to fall apart in the second act." And so marring the happy ending is Stephen's abortive social experiment with Ellen and May, who fail to get uplifted. They plead with Stephen to let them stay as year-round housekeepers, but the yuppies lack the courage of their new convictions. After achieving a paltry revenge, May returns to New York, and Ellen resumes fending for herself.

Though well-intentioned in its pursuit of a back-to-basics, less-is-more ethic, Greenberg's concoction reverts to familiar formulas. Indeed, Eastern Standard harks back more to the 30s than the 80s, class-conscious comedies like My Man Godfrey, You Can't Take It With You, Holiday, and The Philadelphia Story, romps in which stuffy rich people discard their selfishness for an "authentic" life of service and fun. Those plays took the temperature of their times and prescribed risk taking, eccentricity, and humility as antidotes to the profit motive.

At its best this play doesn't condescend to its characters. Greenberg's heart's in the right place, and he confronts his audience with questions--and people--most Americans avoid. In a conventional comedy he still finds room for AIDS, homelessness, stock-market swindles, and architectural sterility. But despite some diverting dialogue and astute observations, Eastern Standard adds little to the old diagnoses and cures--the details differ, but the stereotypes remain.

Nevertheless, Gary Griffin's well-cast staging, an Apple Tree Theatre Company local premiere, treats Greenberg's good intentions as if they were original. As Stephen, Larry Yando anchors his character's sandwich-board idealism in believable anguish. As Stephen's soul mate, Lisa Marie Schultz makes Phoebe's Wall Street-to-Main Street conversion convincing, though if she studied Katharine Hepburn and Jean Arthur she might make us feel the true price of Phoebe's hard-won nonconformity.

The gay characters are the stereotypically acerbic Drew and the stereotypically doomed Peter. Though Steve Trovillion depicts a bitchy character whose response to life's crises is to call a cab, he makes Drew more than fashionably flippant; his Drew is almost as afraid to be hurt as he is to give up on love--and that makes all the difference. David New's Peter is eloquent even when he represses his feelings, though he seems too resigned to having AIDS and at the prospect of his imminent end. But perhaps New was told to spare the audience.

Holly Wantuch gives Ellen a salt-of-the-earth earnestness that never cloys, and Robin Baber plays May with an upfront intensity that suggests a whole new kind of street theater.

Kitty Luening's sets, Francis Maggio's costumes, and Richard Arnold Jr.'s lighting are all as elegantly simple as the characters are not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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