Manhattan Theatre Club
MTC at New York City Center – Stage I
Tuesday - Sunday through March 29, $99-$109
Succession meets Romeo and Juliet in Richard Greenberg’s The Perplexed, making its world premiere at City Center’s Stage I. The Manhattan Theatre Club production, which opened last night and runs through March 29, takes place in a stunning library in a Fifth Avenue mansion that has audience members gasping in delight (and jealousy) as they enter the space; the set, filled with books, austere furniture, and inviting nooks that disappear off into the wings, was designed by Santo Loquasto, who has won five Drama Desk Awards and four Tonys and has been nominated for three Oscars for his production design and costumes, most prominently for Woody Allen films. You are instantly sucked into this insulated sphere of the rich and the formerly rich, men and women dealing with who they were, not necessarily knowing who they are or who they will be.
Isabelle Stahl (Tess Frazer) and Caleb Resnik (JD Taylor) are getting married in the massive town house owned by her grandfather, the unseen, ridiculously wealthy Berland, who nobody seems to care for very much. Isabelle and Caleb have been destined to be together since they were six years old, but a rift over money tore the families apart until the two millennials reconnected on a subway platform twenty years later — how gauche! — and fell in love. The controlling and manipulative Berland is the father of the somewhat addled Joseph Stahl (Frank Wood), who is married to the elegant Evy (Margaret Colin), a candidate for City Council speaker; her red dress is wet and dirty from a stop she made at the site of a water-main break on the way to the wedding, and throughout the action the stain creeps slowly up from the hem. Their son, Micah (Zane Pais), is in med school but has also added acting in online porn to his resume. So much for the bride’s side.
Caleb’s mother, Natalie Hochberg-Resnik (Ilana Levine), is a would-be social justice warrior not above delivering verbal jabs and none-too-subtle innuendoes, while her husband, Ted Resnik (Gregg Edelman), appears to be a pleasant, understated gentleman. “Don’t our children look too beautiful? Doesn’t it positively make you want to kill yourself?” Natalie says, to which Evy responds, “That’s not what does.” A few moments later, Natalie offers, “We can maintain an entente cordiale. For the kids.” Evy replies, “There’s never been a real reason for the rupture. We hate the same things. And the kids are so great. It would be a pity to make this evening worse than it already is.”
Meanwhile, Evy’s brother, the sarcastic, wry writer James Arlen (Patrick Breen), adds erudite commentary to the goings-on as former rabbi Cyrus Bloom (Eric William Morris), who will be officiating the marriage, is preparing his words for the ceremony. “I think you’re slinging a whole lot of bullshit here, James,” Cyrus says early on. “If I am, it’s not original to me, it’s what’s been passed down — heirloom bullshit,” James answers. It is clear that no one wants to be there with Berland as former glories, current enmity, and the stratifications of wealth threaten to crack the smooth social veneer. As the midnight nuptials approach, surprising past relationships among various characters are revealed and blood is spilled.
In Greenberg’s 2013 Broadway play, The Assembled Parties, one character says, “God is bogus, and religion a scourge. Still, I believe in something, though I’m not sure what.” The same thing applies to The Perplexed, which several times invokes the Kabbalistic concept of the broken vessels, which involves God’s light, good and evil, and repairing a shattered universe. Several characters think Cyrus can just spit out a biblical parable and all will be well, but that’s not quite how it works. “My friends started pointing out that I was using the word God a lot and wasn’t I an official atheist and would I please cut it out?” Cyrus admits. It’s hard to know just what the Arlens and the Resniks believe in. Perhaps it is all summed up by Patricia Persaud (Anna Itty), Berland’s housekeeper. “When we are foolish, it’s good that things hurt a little,” she tells everyone.
Efficiently guided through extensive changes during previews — there was confusion the night I went about the running time, which is currently officially listed as two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission — by MTC artistic director and three-time Tony nominee Lynne Meadow, who has previously helmed Greenberg’s Our Mother’s Brief Affair and the aforementioned The Assembled Parties, the superbly acted The Perplexed is a clever and witty drawing-room comedy that journeys into the world of a privileged class trying to hold on after much of that privilege has gone away.