From its subject matter to its faux New Yorker program cover, thesp-cum-scribe Charles Grodin’s “The Right Kind of People” is a very Manhattan affair making its debut, somewhat incongruously, at San Francisco’s Magic Theater. This seriocomedy about ugly doings on a Fifth Avenue co-op board mines some laughs, recognition and righteous indignation from watching the rich behave badly. Still, the evening’s diversions can’t quite hide the fact that its target is an easy one, and these particular kinds of people remain of great interest only to themselves.
Youngish, idealistic “Broadway producer” Tom (Robert Parsons) is a new resident at the co-op overlooking Central Park where his uncle Frank (Ken Ruta) also lives. Their relationship is professional (well-off Frank invests in Tom’s productions), but also deeply familial. The younger man’s parents died during his childhood, so Frank took on the role of surrogate-father/mentor. Now he recruits a rather reluctant Tom to fill a vacancy on the building’s board.
Thus Tom becomes young blood in an assemblage largely peopled by folks who are “old school” in a specialized sense — they’re downright horrified when it emerges he has no idea what the Social Register is. (One wonders how he could have been raised by Frank without learning that long ago.)
These are folk who invariably preface statements with “Now, I am the least prejudiced person in the world, but …” They love their ethnic maids. But they wonder if the hulking African-American man newly employed as an invalid’s caregiver might frighten “other” tenants, and thus should be told to use the back elevator? They politely rationalize rejection of potential buyers who in truth are just too vulgarly “nouveau” (i.e. a Kansas City couple) or just too “garment-district” Jewish.
While loyalty to his uncle stays Tom from judging these elders as “power-tripping elitists,” he nonetheless finds himself drawn into allegiance with Doug (Eric Siegel), a confessed Anti-Defamation League “zealot” who considers them just that. Doug constantly annoys the more staid members, who fret he’s in league with “opposition” residents fed up with a board they view as high-handed, noncommunicative, even hostile toward other shareholders.
Ultimately Doug does cross over to the “enemy” camp. Tom finds himself stuck in the middle — his conscience unable to allow the total “loyalty” required by Frank, who takes this “betrayal” very ill. After a coup d’etat, Tom is further mortified to find the younger new board just as prissily exclusive, albeit in new, selfish ways.
These conflicts are juicy enough to hold attention. But the staccato rhythms in Grodin’s text and Magic a.d. Chris Smith’s production (he’s been involved with the script’s development for years) seem somewhat at odds with the subject. Some scenes are so brief they come off as clumsy, bare-bones explication — notably the very first. The last awkwardly breaks fourth wall as Tom provides a series of where-they-are-now epilogues.
Where a rare play like John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” managed to traverse from satire to genuine poignancy in scrutinizing the same milieu and its limited contact with the Great Unwashed outside, Grodin treads a more cautious middle ground, to lesser results. His characters aren’t full-on caricatures, yet they’re not very fully dimensionalized either.
Lacking the type of sharp banter anticipated, the play’s arc travels from mild comedy of manners to a sense of tragic loss that’s admirable in concept but feels unearned. There simply isn’t enough weight to these proceedings to pull it off.
On a suitably expensive-looking living room set by Annie Smart, between apt interludes of tasteful cocktail jazz, Smith’s first-rate local cast generally restrains itself from upturned-nose cartoonery. Yet more color might have been welcome; one could easily imagine the play’s minor-key impact enlarged by the brassier personalities of a starry New York production.