Truman Capote’s famous 1966 Black & White Ball becomes a backdrop for biting social parody and analysis in Richard Greenberg’s cleverly disjointed “Bal Masque,” making its debut at D.C.’s Theater J. Greenberg’s droll wit and linguistic dexterity are fully on display in this mostly satisfying piece.
A frivolous mood is set the instant the lights come up on a society couple seated in their New York living room, both wearing party masks. He’s in a tux and she’s in a long, white dress, her mask adorned with elaborate plumage that bobs with every movement like a restless bird. They have just returned from Capote’s famous Plaza Hotel ball and are eager to savage all they surveyed.
The conversation is delightfully effete, delivered with hauteur. It builds slowly from vapid observations about nothingness — short men, the “elegant prop” of a cigarette — before turning to the party’s guests and especially its host.
The couple trade diatribes on society’s disturbing new era in which such “freaks” as Capote have suddenly gained the power to dictate who’s in and who’s out. Sadly for them, they are out, having been forced to crash the so-called party of the century to keep up appearances. “Remember what it was like to be us?” they ask wistfully.
Such is the vein that Greenberg merrily mines in “Masque,” the latest product to drop from his well-oiled conveyor belt. It focuses on the problems of three ill-suited couples during the wee hours following the ball. While the party is the common thread, each vignette stands on its own in Greenberg’s sometimes biting piece about changes in the social order during the turbulent ’60s.
Theater J was invited to launch the play because it is considered one of the nation’s top contemporary Jewish theaters, one that has in recent seasons specialized in new works. In fact, Greenberg probably couldn’t have asked for a better venue. John Vreeke, Theater J’s resident director, has staged the play with a keen eye for the absurdities being flaunted and the real-life troubles that lie just beneath them. Carefully crafted scenes are performed with impeccable timing and delicious bits of comedic movement.
Vreeke has assembled a talented ensemble that revels in Greenberg’s messages of angst. As the act one couple, Brigid Cleary and Jeff Allin offer a hysterical pas de deux filled with silly moments and unrepressed anger. Just watching a slouching Cleary guzzle brandy and coffee chasers between verbal barrages would be worth the price of admission. Allin is every bit the polished aristocrat ready to seize an argument and an opportunity.
In act two, the situations become decidedly more tragicomic, and somewhat less satisfying, as Greenberg dives into the personal problems of two dysfunctional couples. The characters include one emotional castoff desperate to grab hold of any solid mooring (a portrait of insecurity by Colleen Delaney). Maia DeSanti adds comic relief as a wacky arts patron and self-professed Capote “swan” with an entertaining speech impediment. Cameron McNary and Todd Scofield play the troubled husbands. Play ends with a surprise Central Park encounter between two of the male characters.
The picture here isn’t so much about cracks in the social class as it is about deep-seated issues that cross social boundaries. And while the parody of these self-obsessed individuals is at times cruel, a bigger problem is that the fluidity of the earlier antics isn’t matched by the decidedly more manufactured mayhem that follows.
But perhaps that’s just Greenberg toying with us. He has, after all, inventively penned each vignette in a distinctively different style in this comic treatise about absolute power. His “Bal Masque” is, on balance, another enjoyable entry into his fast-growing canon, one that will be pursued as much for its delicious female roles as for his searing insights into the upper crust.