The Review: MTC’s Dan Cody’s Yacht
There is a reference in Anthony Giardina’s interesting but problematic new play, Dan Cody’s Yacht to the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, “The Great Gatsby“. And it is in that segment of the book when Gatsby speaks in desirous awe of Dan Cody and his yacht, that the playwright found the play’s name and the central theme. Many scholars claim that the 1925 American classic novel is a cautionary tale of the decadent downside of the American Dream; a passionate swim out to the excesses of the rich by the inevitably hopeless lower classes aspiring for more but finding disappointment instead of wish-fulfillment. It plays with the fundamental inequality that is handed down from birth asking the question of whether one decides to remain inside its solid walls or attempt with all their might to assert themselves to rise above their inherited position. Gatsby’s failure to realize the American dream in the novel demonstrates the ultimate destruction of that ideal, because, in reality, it is a nightmare bringing nothing but discontent and disillusionment. And so, within this new American play do we find the same warning signs of dangerous swimming conditions, all wrapped up in a father figure and money manager to the rich.
At least this is what Fitzgerald is trying to say when it comes to”The Great Gatsby” and in essence, this is what this new play is trying to detail as well and although the theme comes across intact, the structure and the contrivances sink the ship overall. We are asked to wonder whether the nobel untarnished school teacher at the center of this story will keep her moral compass aimed true, or will Cara Russo, played clearly and a little too neatly by Kristen Bush (PH’s Kin) swim out to Dan Cody’s Yacht lured by the tease of financial gain that seems almost too good to be true? All of that hope and financial fantasy resides deep within the compelling sales pitch from the gay (as to not add an icky level of sexual discomfort into the mix) money-manager, Kevin O’Neill, played with the perfect blend of superficial sincerity and scumbag arrogance by Rick Holmes (LCT’s Junk). He, stepping into Dan Cody’s shoes, sells his vision of the moneyed world well over a good glass of red. He’s a complicated character in this incarnation as the slick scum applied in that first scene is hard to rinse off, even as we watch Cara get persuaded to dip her toes into the water by his soothing words later. Kevin argues that he wants to help her, but our instincts and hers scream a warning not to trust him. This is especially clear as he convinces her to look out at the proverbial yacht at what he can get her. Cara imagines she sees an oasis out there, where she is living in a better neighborhood, eating in nicer restaurants, drinking better wine, and getting her smart but struggling poet daughter, Angela, played with disgruntled intelligence by Casey Whyland (Broadway’s Billy Elliot) into a much better public school over on the other side of the tracks, in this case, a river. She knows that school well, as it is the school she works in as a tough English teacher to Kevin’s slacker son, Conor, played perfectly by John Kroft (Bay Street Theatre’s The Tempest). The two children of these two parents are wonderfully crafted but nonchalantly used, more for obvious plot conveniences than any sound or deep connection, much like Kevin’s motive or his sexuality, and many of the sidelined characters that float in and out of the story.
The problems in this fantasy dream boat vision lie in the secondary characters that live on both sides of that great divide. On the fancy side, Kevin’s friends are not really all that friendly, to Kevin and beyond. They are stereotypes of people we are trained not to like, and they arrive in Kevin’s well-appointed living room one night to talk about ‘fun’ and casual investing, embodied in the form of rich couple, Geoff and Pamela Hossmer, played well by Jordan Lage (Broadway’s Race) and Meredith Forlenza (Broadway’s 1984), and cold and unlikable Alice Tuan, played crisply by Laura Kai Chen (Public’s Much Ado About Nothing). Giardina (LCT’s The City of Conversation) has written them purposefully as horrendously blasé and pretentious people, balancing them out with the creation of Cara’s other-side-of-the-river best buddy, the fiery Cathy Conz, played with spark by Roxanna Hope Radja (2ST’s Torch Song). None of them seem like real or true friends, especially Cathy and Cara, who feel more like testy neighbors than Friday night margarita drinking buddies. The chemistry of most connections within Dan Cody’s Yacht feel like constructions of plot device need and convenience rather than organic and realistic, much like some of the structures and formulas we are asked to digest.
Dan Cody’s Yacht gets a first class treatment by the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I, with beautifully elegant and stylish costumes by Catherine Zuber (Broadway’s My Fair Lady), warm lovely lighting by Jen Schriever (Vineyard’s The Amateurs), compelling original music and sound design by Fitz Patton (Broadway’s Three Tall Women), and especially the modern wood infused set design by John Lee Beatty (Broadway’s Sweat, Other Desert Cities) which utilizes a central corridor most effectively by director Doug Hughes (Broadway’s The Father) to further elevate the emotional ramifications of the scenes that exist on either side of the divide. The haves and the have quite-not-as-much that exist on either side of that corridor are compelling worlds, but somewhere in the writing and the engagements that swim back and forth fail to register as strongly as that one passage from “The Great Gatsby“. Kevin keeps saying that Cara is too smart to be in the place she finds herself, and maybe that’s the problem. She is no James Gatz, a man so entranced by the image of the yacht owned by the silver mining magnate, Dan Cody that he invents a new identity for himself as Jay Gatsby, and pursues his dream with an obsessional hunger. And even though I see a great deal of myself in Cara’s discomfort in the talk of money and its making, I didn’t believe in her naiveté and her desperation to reinvent herself. Nor did I believe in most of her entanglements. The last scene is particularly head scratching, leaving us wondering what this was all about. That, and the misuse of the daughter and son characters, just never made this swim seem quite so worthwhile. I think I’d rather stay dry and on the shore.