×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

A Naked Girl on the Appian Way

Like a Hamptonite cathedral, the web of endless windows and bleached wooden rafters of John Lee Beatty's imposing set for "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" could hardly be more light and airy. But Richard Greenberg's old-fashioned boulevard comedy in pseudo-provocative clothing is suffocated at every turn by artificiality.

With:
Bess Lapin - Jill Clayburgh Jeffrey Lapin - Richard Thomas Sadie - Ann Guilbert Elaine - Leslie Ayvazian Juliet Lapin - Susan Kelechi Watson Thad Lapin - Matthew Morrison Bill Lapin - James Yaegashi

Like a Hamptonite cathedral, the web of endless windows and bleached wooden rafters of John Lee Beatty’s imposing set for “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way” could hardly be more light and airy. But Richard Greenberg’s old-fashioned boulevard comedy in pseudo-provocative clothing is suffocated at every turn by artificiality. It’s hard to discern the subject of this toothless play about incest that’s not really incest. Maybe the endless capacity of the rich for complacency, denial and rationalization? The functional dysfunction of the happy family? In any case, it seems a flimsy skeleton on which to hang the playwright’s erudite wit.

Playing successful cookbook author Bess Lapin, Jill Clayburgh busily plucks from her kitchen herb garden to prepare a salad of 49 ingredients. But the project is neither completed nor served. The same could be said for Greenberg’s play. With the writer’s usual verbal aplomb, he tosses in one-liners and self-consciously clever observations about the complexities of love, family and relationships. But he neglects to add the fundamental condiment of emotional truth.

In an ambling opening scene that takes too long to engage, Bess and husband Jeffrey (Richard Thomas) trade self-satisfied banter that establishes her as a serene homemaker with a sunny disposition and him as an anxiety-ridden asthmatic. Jeffrey is also a writer, at work on the tome “Business and Art: An Unlikely Interface.” From the studied sophistication of their discourse on semantics, gastronomy and the profound beauty of ignorance as demonstrated by neophyte filmmaker Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane,” it emerges that two of their children are due home after 17 months in Europe.

Enter savvy Juliet (Susan Kelechi Watson) and doltish, adorable Thad (Matthew Morrison), who almost immediately drop the bombshell that they’re in love and plan to marry. Greenberg supplies enough hints early on that the kids are not flesh-and-blood siblings. Even the Playbill cast photos serve as a clue that Bess and Jeffrey have assembled an insalata tricolore of adopted kids in different hues, with Teutonic Thad, Dominican Juliet and Asian Bill (James Yaegashi).

Now that the book on intrafamilial closeness has been rewritten by Woody and Soon-Yi, such a central conflict risks being humdrum — especially since Greenberg has not bothered to set off any real sparks. Unlike in, say, Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?,” there’s nothing at stake here. Thad and Juliet never really acknowledge the queasiness their situation engenders, and while their parents clearly find the revelation “icky,” their flapping about has an air more of daffy bemusement than of genuine alarm.

Wes Anderson’s movie “The Royal Tenenbaums” dealt with a quasi-incest scenario in the intellectually stimulated environment of a well-heeled, high-cultured family better than this smug sitcom.

The arrival of Yaegashi’s stony-faced Bill in the central act salvages the effort to some extent. Just as gay accountant Mason Marzac was the most memorable character in “Take Me Out” — and the most direct conduit for the playwright’s own voice — so, too, is this outsider the most intriguingly complex figure onstage here.

A bisexual who feels twice rejected by his sister and his sexually boundaryless brother, Bill’s whiny “Why am I never chosen?” outpouring reaches dizzying heights of resentment. Yaegashi’s seething deadpan channels every ounce of bristling animosity in a guy who sees himself as “the runt standing between this chiquita and Rutger Hauer.”

Described by his father as having a “grandiose inferiority complex,” Bill gripes about his librarian job, his second-tier college education, even the preordained destiny of blandness in his name next to the more romantically monikered Thaddeus and Juliet. The unrelenting determination with which Bill paints himself as the victim of low expectations and Asian stereotyping is the play’s most original laugh track.

Beyond that, there’s nowhere much for Greenberg to go. The playwright is soft on his impossibly articulate characters (they casually bandy about terms like phylum, Reichjungen and antinomian), generally declining to challenge them with any real dramatic meat. Bess and Jeffrey, in particular, are too busy congratulating themselves on how evolved and liberal they are to be thrown off-balance by the kids’ revelation.

Greenberg ushers in a contrived third-act twist involving widowed neighbor Elaine (Leslie Ayvazian). And via Elaine’s mother-in-law, the play mines cheap laughs through that reliable old comic standby, the belligerent, trash-talking granny, played to the hammy hilt by Ann Guilbert. Making both these characters also writers of feminism-related tracts extends the playwright’s opportunities for repartee about the minefield of sexuality and interpersonal politics.

In the final scene, Elaine scornfully laments being “caught up in the bourgeois farce of infidelity and divorce.” But while it grazes some interesting points about the construction of false harmonies, “Naked Girl” is actually a bourgeois farce about nothing.

While director Doug Hughes and the tech team do the usual pristine job for a Roundabout mainstage production, the polished execution and lavish design (chez Lapin is like an Architectural Digest porn centerfold) seem to amplify the synthetic quality of Greenberg’s play.

Despite more than capable work from the cast, the most tangible reward is the pleasure of seeing Clayburgh’s warm, wise presence back on a Broadway stage for the first time in two decades.

A Naked Girl on the Appian Way

American Airlines Theater; 740 seats; $81.25 top

Production: A Roundabout Theater Company presentation of a play in one act by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Doug Hughes.

Creative: Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; original music and sound, David Van Tieghem; production stage manager, Leslie C. Lyter. Opened Oct. 6, 2005. Reviewed Sept. 30. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast: Bess Lapin - Jill Clayburgh Jeffrey Lapin - Richard Thomas Sadie - Ann Guilbert Elaine - Leslie Ayvazian Juliet Lapin - Susan Kelechi Watson Thad Lapin - Matthew Morrison Bill Lapin - James Yaegashi

More Legit

  • The Play That Goes Wrong review

    BBC Orders Comedy Series Based on ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’

    The BBC has greenlit “The Goes Wrong Show,” a new series based on Mischief Theatre’s popular “The Play That Goes Wrong” stage production about a troupe that puts on disastrous plays. The stage show has transferred from London’s West End to Broadway for a J.J. Abrams-produced version described by Variety as “a broad, silly and [...]

  • By the Way Meet Vera Stark

    Off Broadway Review: 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' by Lynn Nottage

    After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head. Before we get too serious, let’s meet [...]

  • Merrily We Roll AlongRoundabout Theatre CompanyMERRILY

    Off Broadway Review: 'Merrily We Roll Along'

    Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around. They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new [...]

  • My Fair Lady Laura Benanti

    Listen: Laura Benanti on 'My Fair Lady' and the Secret to Her Melania Trump Impersonation

    Laura Benanti is now playing her dream role on Broadway. At the same time, the Tony winner (“Gypsy”) is also playing her toughest part ever. Listen to this week’s podcast below: More Reviews Berlin Film Review: 'Stitches' Berlin Film Review: ‘Aruna & Her Palate’ “It’s the most demanding part I think I’ll probably play,” said [...]

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content