Richard Greenberg’s “The Injured Party” examines and finally rejects (hurray!) contempo cynicism and disengagement, albeit in a coolly cerebral way that won’t be to every taste. But it’s a substantial work that demands attention, taking the scribe into darker-than-usual territory while retaining the humor and wry insights of his earlier oeuvre. Future productions will certainly thank their lucky stars to boast a company as scintillating as the one helmer Trip Cullman has assembled for the South Coast Rep world premiere.
Greenberg’s specialty is incomplete persons, and overgrown trust-fund baby and artist manque Seth Sutter is one of his most outrageous yet. Reg Rogers plays him with amusing frenzy as a walking furrowed brow, a schlub physically pained by the phonies and sycophants he identifies throughout Gotham aristocracy’s galleries and townhouses.
Of course, his own artistic career is hampered by an utter lack of talent, discipline or focus (his masterwork “The Re-Enactments” will take the art world by storm, he’s sure, once he decides on a medium for it and exactly what it’ll be).
Plot hinges on a rocky relationship with his sole relative, millionaire grandmother Maxene (the splendid, majestical Cynthia Harris). To Seth, Maxene represents an embarrassing ethnic stereotype (his string of self-hating rants is likely to discomfit Gentiles and Jews alike), redeemed only as his once-and-future cash cow. “You are wealthy, we are the living: Redistribution must commence!” he exclaims, wheedling for an advance to purchase a house as his salon and studio.
But wise Maxene keeps the checkbook locked. She wants a family, beginning with her grandson’s acknowledgment of his heritage. Keeping Seth on tenterhooks, she goes about “adopting” new and more congenial relatives, like blissful lover of all things artistic Lawrence (T. Scott Cunningham) and elegant klepto Bettina (Caroline Lagerfelt). Even Seth’s confidante, perky actress Becca (Marin Ireland), falls under her spell, the guy quietly panicking as a passel of potential inheritants start queuing up ahead of him.
As in his Tony-winning “Take Me Out,” Greenberg employs direct address, as well as flashbacks-within-flashbacks and conversations across time and space, to take the action out of its Philip Barryesque “well-made” trappings. The characters take pains to correct each other’s recollections in a metatheatrical cascade of ironic commentary, leading to much hilarity as well as expressions of loss and regret.
As passive Seth, in kvetching death watch, ingratiates himself with Grandma and then pulls away, he becomes wearily repetitious, sending play into a bit of a lull at about the two-thirds point. The focus shifts for a time to poor damaged Bettina, meant to be Seth’s mirror image in some ways but not seamlessly integrated into the play’s fabric. Lagerfelt struggles nobly to find the right tone for a character who almost seems to have been created elsewhere and shoehorned in here.
But under Cullman’s brisk, sensitive helming, the production’s warmly human elements bring the play alive again in short order. Ireland, the most piquant comic persona, offers a welcome touch of the proletariat amid all the Gotham inbreeding, Becca’s backstage life bringing in another conception of family.
Studly, funny Lorenzo Pisoni is a prodigious delight in 10 small but invaluable supporting roles, any one of which an audience would delight to see expanded and taking greater stage.
David Korins’ magnificent yet neutral black-and-white suggestion of an apartment environment readily adapts itself to multiple locations through the sensitive color changes in Ben Stanton’s lights, including a suggestion (is it orange or saffron?; the debate continues) of artist Christo’s 2005 Central Park installation “The Gates,” evoked numerous times as an event central to the spiritual lives of these characters and of America itself.
In the end, a protagonist who once scoffed at the modern idea of “family” as “any group of people in a room” comes to recognize the importance of overcoming fear and connecting, however improvised the outcome. He embraces his true name and persona, and the healing begins.
“The Injured Party” isn’t perfectly crafted, but it feels like a significant milestone in a career marked more and more by bringing characters to pronounced states of grace.