Whatever else, playwright and author Anthony Giardina should be congratulated for his brave attempt to shift our attention from the most popularly cited symbol within The Great Gatsby—that damn green light at the end of the dock—to a lesser-known one.
The title of Manhattan Theatre Club’s latest play, Dan Cody's Yacht, refers to the symbol of wealth within F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that belongs to copper tycoon Dan Cody and which so captivates a young James Gatz (before he transforms himself into the golden Jay Gatsby). Cody’s yacht becomes the symbol of wealth and luxury that Gatsby aspired to.
Giardina takes that hunk of symbolic clay and warps it when observing the cultural and moral clash of Kevin O’Neill (Rick Holmes) and Cara Russo (Kristen Bush).
The play, directed by the Tony-winning Doug Hughes, spans 2014 to 2016. Kevin is a rich single gay father of a son (Conor, played by John Kroft), while Cara is a single, not that rich, heterosexual mother of a daughter (Angela, played by Casey Whyland).
He lives in the posh Bostonian suburb of Stillwell, and she in the more hardscrabble suburb of Patchett, and they first come into conflict because she, a teacher at the nice school in Stillwell, wants to encourage a merger with Patchett’s school which Angela attends. She sees this as helping poor and able kids, he sees it as being a potential disaster for the posh school.
Holmes is excellent at playing both smooth and slimy; insinuating and charming with a glass of wine and silken compliments, and beneath that hard and aggressive with Connor who’s lazy and not really applying himself at school; just like Gatz/Gatsby, Kevin has raised himself from a materially tough upbringing to upper middle class comfort. He knows the grime beneath; he never wants to see it again.
Bush is a working class teacher who is nobody’s fool, and Angela is just like her mother.
Instead of Dan Cady’s yacht, Kevin wants his lifestyle to inveigle Cara into not pursuing her campaign, to win her over to his view of making money out of stocks, shares and nefarious financial schemes. Why, he is even has a simply lovely evening of wine regularly with a group of like-mindeds, playing at being suburban masters and mistresses of the universe. Of these, Laura Kai Chen as the serene and also terrifying-without-saying-much Alice Tuan stands out.
Cara begins the play feeling passionately about the merits of hard work and educational fairness for all; Kevin’s peacockish privilege is everything she despises. But slowly, observing what feels like the terminal state of her and Angela’s life together, and the lack of educational opportunities for Angela to progress, she doesn’t exactly relent, but does become more open to Kevin’s schemes. The difference is, she is conflicted; he delights in playing human chess.
Cara does want change. She wants improvement. Her buddy Cathy (Roxanna Hope Radja) suddenly seems to stand for stasis, and being trapped. Maybe Cara can escape Patchett. Maybe she and Angela can live in Stillwell, move, move up.
John Lee Beatty’s revolving and revealing set is simple and a little ingenious, with the characters caught at scene changeover time having little emotional moments in corridors. Giardina cleverly tells a number of different stories and truths. If Kevin is the devil, he is one who seems also to want to do something good; he wants to share the Gatsby dream, ruthlessly.
Whyland is particularly good as a kid, who wants to be left alone to work and do well, but do well honestly and on the terms she is comfortable with (and she is as revolted by Kevin, as much as he claims to admire her). Hope Radja’s circumspect, earthy friend, suspicious of snobs, money, and anything in a posh restaurant—particularly ones serving cocktails with not enough alcohol in them—may remind you, in the best way, of Joan Cusack in Working Girl and Laura San Giacomo in Pretty Woman.
Bush is at her best when she is allowed to let rip. But something rings a little hollow in how these characters end up. If the stakes were as high as the play has led us to believe, a denouement of comparative equanimity feels bogus. And so you think back to the yacht in Gatsby: something very real, also something very real to aspire to, and also an illusion in a young man’s eyes.
Kevin has made Dan Cody’s yacht happen for himself. So many others do not, and yet are tempted by Kevins and other unscrupulous money-promisers that Dan Cody’s yacht can be anybody’s. The iniquities of the public education system remain a damning constant.
Giardina finally seems to be saying: dream, and dream big, especially for your children, but dream real. And if someone today, in the economically fraught 2018, comes promising you Dan Cody’s yacht, sure—go for it. And also, don’t believe it.
Dan Cody's Yacht is at City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, NYC. Book tickets here to July 8.