There’s a lot of tsuris in Richard Greenberg’s witty and quite wonderful “The Perplexed,” — at least for the older generation of characters on this 10-actor cast. In this new play now making its bow at Manhattan Theatre Club, they’re struggling madly with changing times they can’t fathom, family wounds that won’t heal and a posh wedding that no one particularly wants — except perhaps for the off-stage, wicked, ancient billionaire whose palatial home is the setting for the event.
That’s why so many of this extended family and their friends are retreating to the many cozy alcoves of the mansion’s “adequately tasteful” library (nicely realized by Santo Loquasto). Here they hide, they strategize, they confront, but most of all they ponder the lives they have led — and the time they still have left. Of course, they all have a way with words — a Greenberg (“Take Me Out,” “The Assembled Parties”) specialty that’s on dazzling display here, sometimes beguiling in its effortless wordplay, sometimes cutting, both unintentionally and not, like little daggers.
But don’t be fooled that you’ve entered a typical drawing room comedy, or even one of A.R. Gurney’s exploration of class (though there’s that, too). Here Greenberg is using the comedy set-up of impending nuptials to reveal something closer to contemporary existential angst — at least as demonstrated by the seeming adults in the room.
Leading the fraught celebration is Joseph (Frank Wood, expertly balancing heartbreak and humor), the billionaire’s disinherited son, a beaten man who is in a state of permanent anguish as a result of the bullying man he can barely call father.
Trying to hold her husband, her family and the evening together with professional aplomb is his wife Evy (Margaret Colin, charming and unruffled, even as the troubled waters rise). As a woman who has found a sliver of control in her life as a councilwomen, she is a whiz at managing, fixing and dealing until she realizes that there are things — in her family and well beyond — that are out of her control.
Her brother James (a deliciously droll Patrick Breen) is also there, but just barely, blending into the upholstery, having lost his purpose but not his cynical wit. When the mood threatens to become too dark, hopeless and sour, it’s brought back into the light by a dash of hipster Talmudic wisdom from an atheist banker-turned-rabbi-turned-teacher/poet (Eric William Morris).
Also in attendance are the bridegroom’s parents, Ted and Natalie (Gregg Edelman and Ilana Levine), estranged friends of the family due to a debilitating lawsuit by the old man which changed their fortunes and their lives. They’re all coping as best they can but as one character says ruefully, fatefully, “the paradigm has changed.” Still, life goes on.
The kids, however, are all right. In fact they’re more than OK, with a gay med-school son Micah (Zane Pais) whose porn sideline just went public; bride Isabelle (Tess Frazer), who’s nobody’s ingenue fool; and an easy-going groom Caleb (JD Taylor), who is unfairly underestimated.
This younger trio certainly has a better grip on life’s current steering wheel than their elders. And if they haven’t found the contentment that Patricia (Anna Itty), the billionaire’s health care worker does, at least they seem more resilient and comfortable in the ride. At least for now.
That’s quite a crowd to keep straight and a quite a script to control. Though Greenberg’s text could have been tad tighter, it’s still, as overseen by Lynne Meadow’s discreet direction, a masterful display of craft, comedy and even a little faith.