By Richard Greenberg; Directed by Lynne Meadow
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.29.20
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street
by Ken Kaissar on 3.6.2020
The cast of The Perplexed. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
BOTTOM LINE: A brilliant and hilariously intricate new play by Tony winner Richard Greenberg.
We live in the age of the perplexed. Supposedly, Americans are united in wanting what’s best for our country, but have we ever been more divided about what that is? We’re confused and frightened, and the characters of Richard Greenberg’s excellent new play, The Perplexed, serve as delightful company to distract us from our own bewilderment for an evening. The title calls to mind The Guide of the Perplexed by Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, which sought to reconcile the contradictions between Hebrew theology and secular philosophy. I wonder if the frustration caused by such a ridiculous task is what inspired Greenberg’s irresistible play.
The plot unfolds in the opulent Fifth Avenue apartment of Berland Stahl, an elderly patriarch who haunts every character in the play, but (cleverly) never appears. Berland is hosting the wedding of his granddaughter, Isabelle (Tess Frazer), a perfect event to reunite the colorful characters in this troubled family. All of the action takes place in the apartment’s library (breathtaking design courtesy of Santo Loquasto), which provides a refuge for family members seeking a break from wedding chaos.
Unsurprisingly, the family includes a wayward son, Micah (Zane Pais), a promising medical student, who reckons with the contradictions of his existence by appearing in a pornographic film that involves urine. Shockingly, Micah turns out to be one of the play's more thoughtful and logical characters. As if urine porn is not enough, further family tension derives from the fact that Isabelle’s fiancée, Caleb Resnik (JD Taylor), is the scion of a clan that was sued by Berland, an event that split the two close families. This wedding marks a reunification that forces bygones to be bygones.
Under the solid direction of Lynne Meadow, the actors skillfully highlight the tension between generations. Frazer, Pais, and Taylor build their characters with quirky tics that invite us to underestimate them, but at our own peril. Frank Wood and Gregg Edelman, the fathers of the bride and groom respectively, are hilariously heartbreaking in their attempts to guide their children and understand their own lives—over which they have apparently lost control. In a particularly desperate moment, Wood's character—ostensibly Jewish—asks the officiating rabbi if he’ll take his confession, then addresses him as "Father."
Paralleling Greenberg's masterful writing, Loquasto’s set is one of the most expansive and detailed designs I’ve ever seen on an Off-Broadway stage (see how many unused electrical outlets you can spot). Another crucial part of the stage magic comes from lighting designer Kenneth Posner. His design takes us gradually from the early evening cocktail hour to the unconventionally late wedding ceremony that convenes at the stroke of midnight.
The Perplexed is among the most intelligent, articulate, and stimulating plays of the last decade. A word of caution, however: this does not necessarily mean that you will love it. No matter who you are, you’ll find yourself challenged by much of what Greenberg’s characters have to say. Rather than playing the chords that will be pleasing to your ears, he plays what he thinks we need to hear. The writing is bold and courageous and will likely needle you; if you can’t bear to be faced with points-of-view that don’t match your own, you should stay away. But you’ll be missing out.
(The Perplexed plays at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, through March 29, 2020. The running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $99 and are available at manhattantheatreclub.com.)
The Perplexed is by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Lynne Meadow. Set Design is by Santo Loquasto. Costume Design is by Rita Ryack. Lighting Design is by Kenneth Posner. Sound Design is by Fitz Patton. Stage Manager is Stephen Ravet.
The cast is Patrick Breen, Margaret Colin, Gregg Edelman, Tess Frazer, Anna Itty, Ilana Levine, Eric William Morris, Zane Pais, JD Taylor, and Frank Wood.