One hopes Richard Greenberg’s nearest and dearest aren’t hanging around Orange County, where his new play “Hurrah at Last” is making its world premiere at South Coast Repertory. His bilious and very funny play is a comedy of bad manners, in which a sour, semi-destitute and ailing young writer endures a holiday so hellish it takes him straight from the family hearth to a hospital bed. Who needs diseases when your friends and family are so virulent?
Greenberg’s engagingly bitter anti-hero is Laurie (Peter Frechette), who arrives at his sister’s posh Manhattan loft for a Christmas Eve dinner wrapped in a cocoon of self-pity considerably thicker than his overcoat. His fever may be new, but it’s clear his bad mood isn’t. Laurie’s monologue of dismay at the tremendous financial success of his friend Oliver’s play is met with casual cordiality by his sister Thea (Ileen Getz), who has problems of her own.
She’s having trouble conceiving a child, and the convolutions of infertility treatments are putting a cramp in her marriage to the wealthy Eamon (Gareth Williams). Laurie listens with vague sympathy, but he keeps returning to his primary obsession: money — specifically how much everyone else has. He’s particularly disgusted, of course, with the lucre being minted by that dear friend Oliver, for whose work he has a barely concealed contempt. The icing on the cake is that Oliver has been hired — for a presumably giant sum Laurie is obsessed with discovering — to turn Laurie’s novel into a screenplay.
When Oliver arrives, on the heels of Laurie and Thea’s somewhat generically bickering parents Sumner and Reva (George Coe and Dori Brenner), holiday chaos ensues. As Laurie sinks deeper into illness, Thea comes a little unglued when faced with Oliver’s walking fertility idol of a wife, Gia (Judy Blazer), who’s got one child in her arms and another in her belly. Escaping parental interaction, Laurie flees to the kitchen to confront the irritatingly admiring Oliver, demanding to know how much money he has, and Greenberg skewers with delightful relish the singular truth that people will reveal anything — and everything — other than that.
Greenberg’s writing is elegant and corrosively funny throughout the first act , striking a delightful balance between wit and wickedness. When Oliver sincerely tells Laurie that money doesn’t bring happiness, Laurie retorts, “No, but it upgrades despair.”
But there’s a reflectiveness in the play that is rarely matched in director David Warren’s staging, which puts the accent firmly on the wisecracks. Laurie’s monologues of fatigue and dissatisfaction, for example, are delivered by Frechette like so much shtick, when a little humanity could reveal them to be gently touching without being less funny.
In the second act, protagonist and, alas, playwright are in worse condition. In the hospital with an as yet undiagnosed disease, Laurie is visited by his ostensible loved ones, and the play turns into a sort of fantasia of bile. Eamon blithely says he’s given away all his money after realizing the hate it’s inspired in others; Oliver admits he’s sabotaged Laurie’s movie project; and mom and dad engage in a kind of truth-telling that makes their first-act kvetching seem positively pleasant. Is Laurie delirious, or have the masks of civilized behavior suddenly slipped from everyone’s faces, revealing the monsters underneath?
Greenberg makes allusions to Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” but it’s Allen’s later, more misanthropic movies the play begins to resemble, as the venom gets thicker and less funny. That it may be fantasy doesn’t make it more pleasant to watch. Eventually the tide of bitterness subsides: Gia, imagined in nurse’s uniform, comes on to sing a lovely Italian ditty, signifying art’s transcendent beauty, presumably, and dad gives the play’s moral summing up: “You should forgive people,” he says with a shrug, after an (imagined?) apology for a lifetime of (imagined?) abuse.
It’s a disappointingly wan and aimless end to a play with a very promising first act. The revelation of “Hurrah at Last” seems to be that people are nasty, but not that nasty. Perhaps so, but is that such a reason to hurrah?