No Room at the Top

In front of the script for The Right Kind of People, playwright/actor Charles Grodin quotes Abraham Lincoln: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." Said power may be relative in Charles Grodin's condescending new play, but it nonetheless corrupts his characters absolutely, and as a result, virtually everyone in People save for Tom Rashman (Robert Stanton), the protagonist, fails this character test. But it's not as though Grodin's play is a particularly winning success either.

In the program, Grodin tells the audience that he based People on his own bitter experience as a member of an elite Manhattan co-op board, and one can still taste the sour grapes. Tom, the morally upright milquetoast, is a theatrical producer invited to join the board based on the recommendation of his Uncle Frank (Edwin C. Owens), a highly influential member. Frank and his wife Edna (never seen, only referenced) raised Tom when both of his parents died during his childhood, though Grodin never specifies how. This is a problem, as the question is never answered but calls plenty of attention to itself. It would have been smarter for Grodin to have simply explained why and moved on.

Not only does Frank serve as Tom's father figure and fellow board member, but the two are also producing partners, currently working on bringing a Revolutionary War play to the Great White Way. Unfortunately, this makes for overkill. It is easy to show how their personal relationship could be affected by a professional one, but either the theatrical relationship or the real estate one would have sufficed; the two here are redundant. Nonetheless, Frank and his nephew become estranged due to Frank's growing problem with the bottle and his estrangement from Aunt Edna.

Frank proves to be one of the foolhardy members of the co-op board, but not the only one. Events escalate as the members make rather racist restrictions, and an ill-explained feud between Frank and bleeding-heart member Doug Bernstein (Mitchell Greenberg) boils over once Doug takes Tom under his wing. Grodin's message is obvious and thematically facile: the rich and privileged prefer to keep company only with their own kind and will take drastic measures to do so. After a coup disassembles the original board, a new one emerges, but it proves to be even more outrageous; its members are racist, anti-Semitic, even anti-children.

Stanton does what he can, but Tom is not a character; he is merely the playwright's alter ego. Grodin admits this in the playbill when quoting a particularly nasty co-op board member who treated him like a vulgarian for buying his wardrobe off the rack (he repeats the line early in the show). As a result, Tom is merely a reaction, not a human being. Grodin also makes an awkward misstep by having Tom close the show with an expository monologue, the only time he breaks the fourth wall. It is hard to say whether he made such a choice due to time restraints or a lack of self-censorship, but it was still a mistake. These are choices that director Chris Smith's fluid direction and Annie Smart's impressively realistic set design cannot rectify.

Both Greenberg and Owens are excellent, solid, and resolute presences in their respective roles. Film and theater veteran Doris Belack steals scenes in a dual role as a stuffy board member and an apartment applicant. But a solid cast cannot elevate the material. Grodin sounds too whiny in People, with its rehashing of uppity Upper East Side stereotypes.

Lincoln also once said, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." Here's wishing Grodin had kept his thoughts to himself.

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