Fade to Black Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

What truly irks me about advertisements that quote reviews is that they’re cheap. You can never get to the heart of a play in just one word or sentence. You can’t even do it in one review. Especially if it’s a play as rich and complicated as Eastern Standard, which, through the telling of two simple love stories about New Yorkers, struggles with some pressing social issues: homelessness, AIDS, corporate greed, and social irresponsibility.

This may make Eastern Standard sound like an annoyingly didactic piece of theater. But playwright Richard Greenberg avoids that by creating genuine, likable characters, whose conversation is peppered with hilarious and insightful one-liners that come at just the right time to stop the play from becoming preachy or sentimental.

Stephen Walker, a successful but frustrated young architect, has developed an enormous crush on a woman who eats lunch every day at the same restaurant he does. In the whiz-bang opening scene he’s dragging his friend Drew Paley, a successful homosexual artist, to the restaurant to get his opinion. Tony Rago gives a brilliant performance as the flamboyant yet down-to-earth Drew, and Matthew Mehl is perfect as the yuppie who’s outwardly stable and conventional but inwardly a suicidal jumble of lonely passion and confusion.

Enter the object of Stephen’s adoration, Phoebe Kidde (skillfully played by Natalie Johnson). She notices Stephen but acts as if she doesn’t. Then a handsome young man (Martin Hurm) walks in, kisses Phoebe on the cheek, and sits down. Stephen exclaims his agony over the thought that she’s taken. Drew falls madly in love with Phoebe’s lunch date. Their conversation is interrupted by an offstage commotion and a woman screaming “Fuck you!”

The lights go out, and the same scene is replayed. But this time Drew and Stephen mime their previous conversation, and Phoebe and the handsome young man speak. We find out that the young man, Peter, happens to be Phoebe’s brother, and that Phoebe is a stockbroker implicated in a highly publicized insider-trading scandal masterminded by her ex-boyfriend. To make matters worse Peter announces he has just been diagnosed as HIV-positive. The scene is again interrupted by the offstage commotion and a blackout.

When the lights come up again the offstage commotion has moved onstage. A waitress/aspiring actress, Ellen (Karen Elyse Rosenberg), and a crazed homeless woman (Gail Bahrs) get in an argument; the woman refuses to leave the restaurant and manages to get Ellen interested in her life story.

These three scenes are united when a brawl breaks out between Peter and the homeless woman. Stephen and Drew come to the rescue, and suddenly the lives of these six characters become inextricably intertwined–and all kinds of wonderful things happen. In a series of delicate moments Drew and Peter discover each other. In the emotional bedlam Phoebe confesses she’s been watching Stephen, then breaks down and asks him to take her home to his apartment.

Act two unites all six at Stephen’s beach house. On one level Greenberg is asking for theatrical trouble: New York yuppies meet in a restaurant and fall in love. An aspiring actress befriends a mentally unstable homeless woman. The woman begins taking her medicine regularly and is transformed into a nurturing person and wonderful cook. A homosexual man meets the love of his life but avoids consummating the relationship because he refuses to tell him he’s HIV-positive.

But Greenberg writes strong characters, giving emotion and soul to people who could easily be stereotypes. And though he seems to have set up a maudlin happy ending, by the end all their false hopes have exploded and only their genuine hopes remain.

Director Ray Gabica brings out the best in his actors, though some of them don’t always live up to the demands of the script. There are also minor design flaws: nowhere in act two do we get a feel for the seaside, and Phoebe’s costumes make her look more like a secretary than a Wall Street heavy hitter. Despite this, Eastern Standard is a highly entertaining and thoughtful piece of theater.