“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.”
He was aiming to do just that when he wrote the original version of the play ten years ago, pegging it to the scandals of the eighties. That version was never performed, and in the interim, Weitz made his name with the American Pie franchise—then began to steer his career toward more sophisticated projects. Last year, Carole Rothman, Second Stage Theatre’s artistic director, rediscovered Privilege and found it freshly relevant. Instead of updating it, Weitz thought, it was easier to address the current corporate scandals through the scrim of the Reagan era. It’s a technique that helps emphasize the way such upheavals continually recur. “And it even feels like it’s going back to another archetypal Republican presidency.”
Instead of modeling the parents in the play on eighties figures, like Ivan Boesky or Michael Milken, however, Weitz said, he decided to make them “grossly distorted caricatures” of his own parents. It’s an unusual choice. And in conversation, Weitz is exceedingly careful to distinguish the real from the fictional, noting that his own parents couldn’t have been further from the social-striving wannabes in the play; in fact, he claims they were the sort of parents the Privilege couple aspire to be. Weitz does acknowledge that he gave the characters traits that are recognizably associated with his parents: Weitz’s father, who grew up in England and traveled around the world, “would say things like ‘Okay, chums, let’s get going.’ ” The father in the play also uses the word chum, “but from him it’s a horrible affectation.”
“It was very easy to be the token rebel druggie at Collegiate. There wasn’t much competition.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the father-son relationship has long been a fraught topic for Weitz. A spy in World War II and later a race-car driver, John Weitz embodied all things macho, and was so tough that Paul has compared his family dynamic to that of a repressive Soviet-bloc country—triggering him and his brother to form a “family within a family.”
In response, Weitz became what he describes as a “really repulsive caricature of the New York boys’-school teenager.” He had a buzz cut with one long lock of hair hanging down to his chin, wore spandex shirts, and frequented Studio 54 in its dying days. “It was very easy to be the token rebel druggie at Collegiate; there wasn’t much competition, so I tried to be that.” This naturally irked his father, who, as a dashingly dressed fashion designer, cared deeply about how people looked and what they wore. “Anything I wore he took somewhat personally, and that just tripled the degree of rebellion.”
Yet even at a young age, Weitz was also struggling not to deny the obvious—his own financial freedom. At 18, upon returning from a trip to Europe, he was asked by a Customs official how he could afford to go to so many different countries, since “I probably fit the profile of a guy who was importing hash.” His response: “Because I have rich parents.” (The Customs official responded, “Well, God bless rich parents.”) “If you grow up wealthy in New York, you get a definition of worldliness, but to me it’s actually not worldliness at all,” he said. “It just means you exclude other parts of the world.” Being raised in Manhattan, he said, gives you the “false impression that you’re faster than everybody else in the country, and that if you didn’t grow up in New York, then you’re probably not as smart or as cultured or you work with one strike against you.”
Weitz toyed with the idea of redeeming the father’s character at the end of the play, but after the dress rehearsal, he decided it would be too saccharine. “I let him have his moment of redemption but followed it immediately with self-indulgence,” said Weitz. “As I was sitting through it yesterday, I realized that if the audience felt like I was asking them to feel sorry for these rich people, I was in serious trouble.” A gamble, it’s true. But one that seems to have paid off.