There may be drama, comedy and conflict in a co-op board meeting, but that doesn’t mean it makes for a full evening of theater, at least not in “The Right Kind of People.” Actually, the social dynamic of these sessions is the best thing going for Charles Grodin’s otherwise lackluster play about the power games of the privileged playing house on Fifth Avenue. It’s the rest of the strained and cliched melodrama surrounding the leading characters that justify denying this play’s application for a commercial lease.
In the program notes, Grodin says much of the material in the piece comes from real-life observations during his own tenure as a board member of an East Side co-op in the 1980s and ’90s. Indeed, many of the petty conflicts have the ring of authenticity as board members bicker over rules regulating pets, children and servants, with equal levels of patronization, contempt and one-upmanship: “Not just South America,” says one board member of her longtime maid, Carmen. “Brazil.”
The seasoned ensemble cast — and the audience, too — have a marvelous time at these richy-bitchy meetings, as well as the private interviews where prospective co-op buyers can be rejected with a word: “Nouveau.”
But Grodin’s attempt to make it more personal, poignant and relevant is not as deftly done, jerking the work into Odets territory. The play centers on the schism that develops between upwardly mobile Broadway producer Tom Rashman (Robert Stanton) and his rich Uncle Frank (Edwin C. Owens), whose connections placed his nephew in the building and on the board.
Tom, who is wooing potential investors on the board to finance his play about the American Revolution, sees the co-op meetings as forums for institutional racism, ageism, sexism and anti-Semitism, disguised as “protecting our investment.”
But convening in the halls is another group of the building’s residents trying to oust the board with a power play of its own. Tom’ failure to support his uncle, a onetime liberal whose 40-year marriage is falling apart (and he’s not in the best of health either), is seen as the ultimate betrayal.
Twist is that the new board is just as bad and bigoted, if not worse, than the old one.
In more skilled hands (A.R. Gurney comes to mind), the nuances of power and class in an evolving social setting might have developed into something interesting. But Grodin’s attempt to personalize the play is maudlin. Work gets no help from helmer Chris Smith, whose pacing is glacial during the board’s downtime.
Cast members have their moments. Doris Belack is deliciously dry as a wealthy matron. She also does well as the very ethnic Mrs. Goldberg, who hopes to buy into the building. (Fat chance.) Evan Thompson floats on a fuzzy cloud of superiority, while Keith Jochim is amusing as the paranoid board president, convinced someone is sabotaging his floral arrangements in the lobby.
However, Owens is on shaky footing as the stunned uncle and Stanton finds no traction in the part of the nice-guy observer.