"Rich people are taboo in entertainment now,” said writer and director Paul Weitz, two hours before the first preview of Privilege, his new play about a pair of rich New York kid brothers. “You can’t have a funny alcoholic anymore and you can’t have a human rich person, unless they become a heroin addict or if they’re Michael Jackson.”
As he spoke, Weitz was busy slicing the pears in a roasted-pear-and-Gorgonzola salad and troweling tuna tartare onto waffled potato chips at a far west 42nd Street diner called the West Bank Cafe, the only place serving the raw-fish dish anywhere near the Second Stage Theatre. That’s where Privilege was scheduled to open on April 25—at which time it would receive a rave review in the Times praising it for humanizing “a world normally glimpsed only in tabloid flashes.”
But that good news was off in the future. Right now, Weitz was worrying himself over the details of the production: Was he too brusque with the actors playing the brothers? Would audiences be alienated by the characters’ wealth? He was clad in a casual black T-shirt, khaki pants, white sneakers, and a navy warm-up jacket, his hair long and wavy. It was a perfect New York rich-kid moment: the latest low-LDL, carb-lite cuisine—partaken while wearing fashionably neo-homeless clothes.
Weitz has a whole set of theories about New York rich-kid styles, being a former rich kid himself. The son of legendary fashion designer John Weitz and actress Susan Kohner (Oscar-nominated for her role in Imitation of Life), he grew up on Park Avenue and attended all the right all-boys schools, from Allen-Stevenson to Collegiate. Now 39, Weitz has outgrown his rich-kid origins, becoming a self-made rich adult by co-creating the American Pie franchise, Down to Earth, and About a Boy with his younger brother, Chris, and In Good Company on his own. But, of course, nobody is truly self-made. So Weitz went back to his childhood for the material for this play about two brothers, one 12 and the other 16, whose privileged Upper East Side lives are rudely interrupted when their father is arrested for insider trading.
He’s chosen an ideal time to do so. Far from being taboo, portrayals of the rich are everywhere these days. The Trumps and the Hiltons roam the earth like glittery dinosaurs. On reality shows like Rich Girls and The Simple Life, wealth is portrayed as a sexy form of lifestyle vaudeville, broken up by interludes of shopping. The dark comedy Arrested Development features a brood of adult children infantilized by their insider-trading dad and dipsomaniac mom; The O.C. plays rich-kid teen romance for a delectably soapy frisson; and movies from The Aviator to Jamie Johnson’s documentary, Born Rich, interrogate the lives of the wealthy with an unstable mixture of fascination and contempt.
But Weitz’s play has an insider’s advantage, one fueled by the author’s own ambivalence toward his younger self—he’s at once protective and critical of the ways in which the brothers in his play are perversely unaware of their own status. In the opening scene, the younger brother is complaining about how dull his life is. “Why do we have to go to Antigua?” he moans. “It’s so boring.” “They don’t even realize they’re snobs,” said Weitz. “They don’t realize that they’re casually racist, either. And on some level, they’re not.”
Their parents, for their part, aren’t exactly letting them in on the secret—they don’t address money at all. “Part of what puts wealthy people in a bubble is they’re ashamed of their wealth on some level.” From Weitz’s perspective, it’s healthier to simply face the issue head-on—“to acknowledge the specificity of where you come from.”