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It’s beginning to feel like playwrights these days are all dealing with the problem of getting their children into good universities. Arriving on the heels of recent dramas Admissions and Transfers is Dan Cody’s Yacht, the new play by Anthony Giardina (The City of Conversation), treading similar territory in its depiction of social and financial inequality as it relates to higher education. It’s a relevant topic worthy of exploration, but the darkly comedic drama, receiving its world premiere in an off-Broadway production from Manhattan Theatre Club, feels like a sociological treatise in search of a play.
The opening scene introduces us to the two central characters: Cara (Kristen Bush), an English teacher at a high school located in an affluent Boston suburb, and Kevin (Rick Holmes), the father of one of her students, who has come to dispute his son’s failing grade on a term paper.
Learning that Cara lives on the other side of the tracks and has a talented daughter who’s attending an inferior school, Kevin, a successful financial manager, personally offers to take over her investments and make her financially comfortable. He assures the suspicious Cara that his intentions are strictly aboveboard, as he’s gay. Desperate to get her daughter into a good college, she eventually agrees. But Kevin has an ulterior motive involving a possible merger of the two school districts, a cause Cara has been championing.
“I can change your life,” Kevin assures Cara as he methodically goes over her assets and expenses. And sure enough, he soon does. The rising value of her investments gives Cara hope that she and her daughter Angela (Casey Whyland, excellent) can move to Kevin’s town with its top-flight high school, whose students are assigned books such as The Great Gatsby (a passage from which gives the play its title) rather than Exodus, which Angela is studying.
Kevin’s slacker son Conor (John Kroft) soon befriends Angela, providing his own bemused take on his father’s motivation for helping her mother. He likens it to the desire of some people to do good in their lives as they get older. “I think maybe your mom is my dad’s Haiti,” he explains, in an example of the playwright’s undeniably witty gift for writing zesty dialogue.
Angela has little enthusiasm for the idea of moving. But she dreams of attending Vassar, where she can pursue her love of poetry. Kevin soon takes it upon himself to help Angela as well. “I am here to make a dream come true,” he proclaims, although he doesn’t shy away from suggesting that the overweight young woman lay off the frappuccinos.
Despite the play’s provocative elements, little of its plotting rings true. Both Kevin’s mission to preserve the purity of his neighborhood and his underhanded way of achieving it feel like dramatic contrivances. Cara’s shock when her investments take a tumble hardly seems credible considering her intelligence and sophistication. Kevin’s gayness feels tacked on, as if the playwright were intent on avoiding any romantic subtext (although the two leads’ attractiveness results in there being some anyway).
The supporting characters — including Cara’s earthy, working-class best friend (Roxanna Hope Radja) and the well-heeled snobs in Kevin’s orbit (Jordan Lage, Meredith Forlenza, Laura Kai Chen) — come across as caricatures; one of the latter, for instance, loudly disdains the “Whole Foods sushi” that Kevin is serving at a get-together. Not helping matters is the episodic play’s sluggish pacing, loading up on far too many pedantic speeches and scenes that feel extraneous.
Director Doug Hughes provides a smooth production, with John Lee Beatty’s handsome sets and Catherine Zuber’s character-defining costumes adding to the polished effect. Bush is highly appealing as the morally conflicted Cara, and Holmes is so charismatic as the smooth-talking Kevin that you understand why people fall sway to him. But their efforts are not enough to prevent Dan Cody’s Yacht from eventually sinking.
Venue: New York City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Kristen Bush, Laura Kai Chen, Meredith Forlenza, Rick Holmes, John Kroft, Jordan Lage, Roxanna Hope Radja, Casey Whyland
Playwright: Anthony Giardina
Director: Doug Hughes
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Music & sound design: Fitz Patton
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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