REVIEW: “Dan Cody’s Yacht”

REVIEW: “Dan Cody’s Yacht”

What do you do when the lead character of a play is so smarmy and deplorable that any prospect of mustering empathy or attempting to understand his motivations is rendered moot?  If you want to find out for yourself, pay a visit to Manhattan Theatre Club’s commissioned world premiere production of “Dan Cody’s Yacht”, a play by Anthony Giardina that opened at City Center Stage I on June 6th.

By my count the fourth new play to debut in the past year that tackles contemporary issues of privilege, mobility, inequality, and education, “Dan Cody’s Yacht” is a tale of two fictional cities in Massachusetts: the elite enclave of Stillwell and its working class neighbor Patchett, separated by a river and an ocean’s worth of wealth.  Single mom Cara Russo (Kristen Bush) is an English teacher at Stillwell High School, though she and her teenage daughter, Angela (Casey Whyland), an aspiring poet, live in Patchett, where Angela attends school.

The play opens as Cara meets with Kevin O’Neill (Rick Holmes) to discuss his rather mediocre son, Conor’s (John Kroft) failing grade on an essay about, what else, “The Great Gatsby”.  Kevin, the aforementioned, morally untethered jerk is leading a “concerned” parents campaign to prevent the merger of the Stillwell school district with the “drug-addicted, poverty-ridden, low-achieving children” of Patchett (a situation all too familiar); before the town votes, a school committee—on which the “incorruptible” Cara sits—will make a recommendation. 

Kevin, who works in private equity, is on a mission to secure Cara’s support for his campaign as part of his larger ploy to get his unimpressive son into an Ivy League school.  To do so, he dangles his ability to grow Cara’s meager savings through stock market investments and his idea of leveraging her home equity to move to Stillwell and give Angela the chance to have a better future. 

The plot thickens as Cara joins Kevin’s weekly investment club and buys into his scheme, unable to resist the lure of improving both her and Angela’s lot in life.  Without spoiling too much, it doesn’t end well for Angela and Cara, who is debased by the exercise—one so implausible and riddled with plot holes that any dramaturg would faint.  For example, how does Angela transferring to a better high school in the fall of her senior year in any way advance her college admission prospects?

Like Cara, Kevin is a single parent; he’s also gay, his late-bloom coming out ending his marriage ten years earlier.  The playwright may have made that latter decision to avoid the potential #metoo ick factor of a rich, straight man preying on a poor, struggling single mother by teasing the prospect of a better future for her daughter to get her to bed.  While that ick would have been pretty icky, it is not entirely neutered by the convenient choice of Kevin’s homosexuality.

Kevin code switches, living his privileged life as a cis gender, masculine, “finance bro”-type who self-admittedly enjoyed living a double life in the closet.  He is more “man who has sex with men” than “gay”, his lack of interest in or solidarity with other marginalized people erasing any claim he might have to assuming the political engagement and social responsibility that comes with being an out member of the LGBTQ community. 

A rich gay white man can be just as privileged and oblivious to the struggles of others as a rich straight white man (see: Roy Cohn).  Intentional or not, Mr. Giardina proves this point with Kevin’s character, which has the ironic effect of making Kevin’s actions as despicable as if he were just trying to woo Cara all along.

The title of the play refers to a passage in “The Great Gatsby” in which an enterprising young Gatsby self-interestedly approaches affluent copper magnate Dan Cody on his yacht to warn him about a coming storm; grateful, Cody takes on Gatsby as his assistant, ingratiating him into a world of wealth and opulence, and later leaving him the seed money that sets him on his path to prosperity. 

Gatsby seized that opportunity to make his life better, just as Kevin opines that Cara and Angela should, as he literally tells this story at the end of the first scene.  Any play that needs to so bluntly explain its titular metaphor to an otherwise literate audience might want to find another metaphor. 

The cast performs the material well under the hand of director Doug Hughes.  The character of Cathy Conz (Roxanna Hope Radja), a gruff, vaguely ethnic Patchett friend of Cara’s is somehow the only person who has a thick Massachusetts accent, a lazy choice seemingly meant to signify her low income status; meanwhile, Ms. Whyland makes the best impression of the lot with her authentic portrayal of a smart, tough, but self-conscious teenage girl dealing with the acute weight of economic and social pressure examined more abstractly elsewhere in the play.

Like so many plays this season, “Dan Cody’s Yacht” is a recent-past period piece, set from September 2014 to June 2016 so as to avoid the implications of occurring during the Trump era.  A meager “time/place” note in the Playbill can’t stop theatregoers from contextualizing for themselves though, especially while watching a play that traverses a minefield of contentious issues boiling across our national discourse—namely, the ever-increasing income inequality that threatens to shred the fabric that binds our society together, where zip codes and genetics mean more for mobility than talent and hard work.  As Kevin astutely puts it: the melting pot where we no longer melt.

Kevin’s tack works because just beneath her cool and confident surface, Cara is made desperate by her income constraints.  He’s not much more than a better spoken Donald Trump, a con man obsessed with money, winning, and maintaining appearances at any cost.  I kept waiting for some back story to emerge or tender moment to occur that would humanize Kevin for me, but at every turn, I was alienated to the point of repulsion.

To the very end, we never really understand why he does what he does, other than to fulfill some fetish for manipulating other people’s lives and money.  Most distasteful of all, his belief that life is a zero sum scrum in which wealth is proof of good character wins the day across the board, leading me to question if Mr. Giardina honestly wishes to push such a disgraceful point of view.

At its finest moments, “Dan Cody’s Yacht” invests the audience in a debate about individual advancement versus the greater good of society—an important idea more incisively explored in Joshua Harmon’s Drama Desk-winning best play “Admissions” (read my review); the balance of the time, though, this play trips over itself with characterizations, plot devices, and ideological battles that frustrate its ability to cogently mine the issues it sets out to explore. 

Kevin would disagree, but economic history proves that a rising tide lifts all boats, a truth that ultimately sinks “Dan Cody’s Yacht”.

Bottom Line: “Dan Cody’s Yacht” is a new play by Anthony Giardina that tackles contemporary issues of privilege, mobility, inequality, and education through an implausible, plot-hole ridden story with an irredeemable leading character and disgraceful ideological point of view.  Skip it.

Dan Cody’s Yacht
Manhattan Theatre Club
at City Center Stage I
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY  10019

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: June 6, 2018
Final Performance: July 8, 2018
Discount Tickets

REVIEW: “The Scottsboro Boys” at Signature Theatre

REVIEW: “The Scottsboro Boys” at Signature Theatre

REVIEW: “The Will Rogers Follies” at The Goodspeed Opera House

REVIEW: “The Will Rogers Follies” at The Goodspeed Opera House