Richard Greenberg is a New York Jewish intellectual playwright who has found his primary artistic home in famously conservative and WASPish Orange County, where the South Coast Rep has been commissioning and premiering much of his recent, and some of his best, work. His latest, “Everett Beekin,” self-consciously spans both worlds, with one act set in late 1940s N.Y. and the other in late 1990s Orange County. Often funny, always well-acted and continuingly intriguing, “Beekin” is ultimately too elusive a piece of work to be satisfying.
Act I takes us to the east side of Manhattan and focuses on the Fox family, composed of a widowed immigrant mom and her three daughters, two married and one still living at home.
On one weekend afternoon, as evidently on all weekend afternoons, older sisters Sophie and Anna come from their suburban residences for dinner, gossip, argument and complaining.
The youngest, Miri, usually has an excuse that keeps her from participating; on this day, it’s a summer cold, causing her worried mother to shuffle back and forth between the bedroom and the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Sophie and Anna spew out Yiddishisms and talk of future plans — Anna is pregnant for the first time, Sophie apparently unable to conceive and considering adoption. Their topics also include the peculiarities of Long Island, Westchester and their husbands.
The act is subtitled “The Shabbas Goy” and the major plot involves the arrival of Miri’s beau Jimmy: a young, handsome, but noticeably non-Jewish man. The bickering sisters team up to interrogate the guest. Asked what he has to offer Miri, Jimmy replies, “A future.”
This hopeful future involves moving to Orange County, where Jimmy plans to partner in a pharmaceutical business with an unsung genius named Everett Beekin VI, the scion of a long line of talented men mysteriously prone to sudden disappearance.
In Act II, of course, we discover what we knew all along, that pharmaceuticals would be a good business to enter, and Orange County would thrive. The links between the two acts are not as predictable, though.
Instead of Jimmy and Miri, the story follows Anna’s grown daughters, Celia and Nell, and the latter’s daughter Laurel. Celia, who has remained a stalwart East Coaster, arrives in the land of overly pleasant weather and overly pleasant people for Laurel’s wedding. The groom? Everett Beekin VIII, known as “Ev,” son of Everett Beekin VII, known as “Bee,” who, it turns out, is having an affair with Nell.
This generational structure is a difficult one to pull off. Greenberg himself used a variation on it in his achingly beautiful “Three Days of Rain,” which moved from the ’90s to the ’60s. But in that earlier work, Greenberg was far more narratively focused.
Throughout the second act of “Beekin,” the playwright keeps us guessing exactly what connections between the two worlds, and between the two generations, he’s making.
The two acts certainly reflect and refract each other, but they remain two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that seems amorphous and partial. Act II, with multiple scenes and outdoor settings — captured quite creatively and colorfully in Chris Barreca’s set and Donald Holder’s lighting — has far more story, but we end up knowing much less about these characters than we did about Sophie and Anna.
The Jewish jokes of Act I quickly transform into WASP jokes in Act II, with plenty of references to cocktail hour, malls and inherited money. But the play never seems to go much deeper than Greenberg’s flashy wit. It’s clearly trying, but the efforts just seem to belabor the fairly obvious.
But the empty feeling that “Beekin” evokes is expressive of Greenberg’s deeper dramatic concerns. All of his characters (especially those in the second act) seem to feel a deep void at their cores, even while every material want is satisfied. But this sense of longing is not enough to give “Everett Beekin” weight. Like the overall play, it remains vague.
The performances, fortunately, do not. Under Evan Yionoulis’ accomplished direction, the leads are exceptionally strong in both roles they play. Kandis Chappell and Nike Doukas do a fine job fleshing out the sisterly relationship in both acts, Jeff Allin makes very different use of reticence to portray two similarly stereotyped characters, and Adam Scott, in an especially impressive performance, captures Jimmy’s pure hopefulness in Act I and Ev’s absolute, and surprisingly poignant, confusion in Act II.