Richard greenberg may not always write good plays, but he seems incapable of writing an uninteresting one. His last Broadway work, The Violet Hour, about a young publisher able to foresee the consequences of his actions, had an appealing sci-fi streak; before that, The Dazzle treated the pack-rat Collyer Brothers to a marvelous linguistic barrage—and these are the plays that didn’t work. The ones that do are as compelling as any in the past decade. Three Days of Rain is so emotionally rich that it has compelled Julia Roberts to quit slumming and come to Broadway next spring. Take Me Out, a drama about baseball and everything else, is intellectually adventurous and theatrically vibrant, a great play despite its flaws. Now, A Naked Girl on the Appian Way poses a new question: Is Greenberg the sharpest comic playwright working today?
The writing here is so wild and funny that it’s hard to believe it’s on Broadway. Jeffrey and Bess Lapin welcome two of their three children—all adopted, all different races—back from a long trip to Europe. As Thaddeus and Juliet describe having seen a naked girl by the Roman thoroughfare of the title, just as their parents had on their honeymoon, Greenberg seems to be setting up his familiar concern with the peculiar way the past unfolds into the present. Then, abruptly, the story spins out of control, turning into an outré family meltdown à la Nicky Silver.
The plot turns on secrets I won’t be caught revealing, but suffice it to say that in its gleeful skewering of the sexual morality of the cognoscenti, the play suggests that Greenberg may be theater’s most spirited heir to Woody Allen. The four grown-up characters here are all authors, but you will look in vain for a garret. Jeffrey, a sensitive-businessman type, and Bess, a celebrity chef, live a luxurious existence in “some Hampton.” (As designed by John Lee Beatty, the many-beamed home is Christopher Wren’s idea of a beach house.)
Thaddeus and Juliet (and their sullen elder brother, Bill) impart revelations that challenge even the liberal sensibilities of their scrupulously with-it parents. Can the post-hippies deal with shocking news about their children? They think so. “We have well-honed techniques of denial,” explains Bess (the lively Jill Clayburgh). Greenberg’s keen grasp of these pampered people makes the comedy wonderfully au courant, almost satiric. After a particularly awful revelation, Thaddeus (Matthew Morrison, delightfully funny) asks his appalled parents, “Would you rather we were smokers?” They think it over and decide not.
As Woody Allen did in his send-ups of love among the literati, Greenberg pitches his comedy high. The play rewards you for at least a passing acquaintance with Barbara Tuchman, Camille Paglia, negative capability, The Blithedale Romance, and the Antinomian Controversy of 1636. But it’s not just brainy metaphors and 50-cent words; Greenberg benefits from careful parsing. Look closely at Take Me Out, a play ostensibly about a gay baseball player, and you may find a marvelously shrewd comment on the limits of Enlightenment thinking. Here, beneath the racial epithets the multihued youngsters trade and the profane outbursts of neighbor Sadie (a terrific Ann Guilbert), various tiny details hint at a deeper purpose. Modern relationships, Greenberg seems to argue, have grown too multifarious to fit the old conventions. The moral of the Lapins’ tale: No matter what Tolstoy—or, more important, Rick Santorum—may want you to believe, all happy families are emphatically not alike.
For all its hilarity, and Doug Hughes’s exquisite production, the play doesn’t entirely come off. Some twists feel forced; promising avenues go unexplored. The writing seems rushed, even by the standards of light comedy—and in ways you’d fear a playwright with three premieres this season might rush. Still, it’s a genuine, if backhanded, compliment to Greenberg to find that one of his minor works can leave you this outrageously entertained, this excited to see what he’ll dream up next. If a heavy workload did in fact hamper the play, he might be the only writer alive who’s writing too fast and not nearly fast enough.
A Naked Girl on the Appian Way
by Richard Greenberg.
American Airlines Theatre.
through December 4.