Another dysfunctional family story, this one is driven by matriarch Irene who is desperate to add to the family income in order to ensure her son Todd goes to college and to cover other expenses. The title refers to a cottage behind their home that second husband Eddie uses as his study but Irene has decreed that will have to be rented out to bring in more revenue. She has also contacted her ex-husband Vernon, a former CEO of a huge property management firm, in order to get her and his teenage son Todd, aged 17, a high-paying summer job. Unfortunately, Todd who has not seen his father in 16 years hates him. And Greg, the only prospective tenant to make inquires, is a teacher at a low paying foundation school for homeless students. To make matters worse, Eddie works in a family book store that both Irene and Todd consider a dead-end job and they look down on him though he is reliable and principled, unlike Vernon who was a world class philanderer.
As set up by the playwright, each of the characters is a symbol and speaks as such: Eddie is an intellectual who believes in economic and social justice, with what used to be called socialist ideals. Cigar-chomping Vernon is the worst kind of capitalist, one with the power to make things happen, and contempt for people who are not as successful, believing that all people can be bought. Unmarried Greg is the humanitarian who has given his life to help disadvantaged people all over the world. Todd, a would-be writer, represents the artist who must scrounge for a living, in this case a summer job he does not want. And Irene, the matriarch, is the mother-figure doing all she can for the survival of her family. The characters are mouthpieces and not very believable.
However, much of the play has not been well-thought-out. Although it covers the 2000-2002 time period, no mention is made of 9/11. The only intellectual discourse we hear from Eddie is about a film he saw 12 years ago from Senegal – or was it Burkina Faso. Although Greg is interested in reading, he is unable to name one book. While Vernon is described in the script as 80 years old, this would make him 40 years older than his ex-wife, rather unlikely. Vernon is a multimillionaire, but no mention is ever made of his paying child support which ought to be substantial.
As directed by Kalfin, Rachel Botchan plays Irene, dressed in a blue jumper, as though she were in a drawing room comedy though neither the dialogue nor the content allows for it. She does give a nice breezy, animated performance, however misguided. White-bearded Sam Tsoutsouvas as the tycoon and former husband gives the sort of polished performance we have seen from him before but here it seems rather superficial which is most likely the author’s fault. Warren Kelley makes the intellectual Eddie more ineffective than he has to be.
Phil Gillen plays young Todd as an outspoken teenager, but often speaks like a much older person. In the underwritten role of an educator, John Long’s Greg is much too retiring and modest to be credible as a 45-year-old teacher. Educators may be soft-spoken but they are usually more definite in their views. Matthew ZanFagna is quirky as a former student of Greg who turns up in the final scene.
Caitlynn Barrett’s initially attractive set becomes tiresome, partly because Paul Hudson’s lighting is so sunny in all of the scenes, making the blue sky dominate the stage picture. The many doors are rather confusing with characters continually exiting and entering, leaving us to wonder where they are going now. Too often the script requires characters to get coffee in the unseen kitchen or visit the off-stage cottage. Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes are mainly nondescript except for Irene’s ever-present jumper explained as her gardening outfit. Sound designer Andy Evan Cohen’s use of patriotic American standards between the scenes is jarring in this context, though it most probably is intended as an ironic statement.
While the themes of The Property are topically relevant, its melodramatic events and wooden dialogue make this new play extremely difficult to believe. The characters are simply mouthpieces for various philosophies without being very convincingly portrayed. Ultimately, Irene gets what she wants but destroys a great many people in the process. George Kelly’s eponymous Harriet Craig did this more believably and trenchantly in the 1925 Pulitzer Prize winning play. Using a drawing room comedy approach for a study of economic downfall, legendary director Robert Kalfin seems to be staging an entirely different play than the one to be seen on The Clurman’s stage.
The Property (through July 14, 2018)
New Light Theater Project’s Spotlight Series
The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 40 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission