NEW YORK — Incorruptible, idealistic Cara Russo teaches “Beloved” to high school English students in affluent Stillwell, Massachusetts. Across the river, where she lives in working-class Patchett, her daughter’s class reads foxed old copies of Leon Uris’ mass-market melodrama “Exodus.”
“Dan Cody’s Yacht,” a Manhattan Theater Club production that opened at City Center Stage I on Wednesday, means to be a truth-telling thought experiment about wealth and opportunity but never gets close to a credible argument. Worse, it seems to have caught a bad case of entitled obnoxiousness from its main character.
That main character is neither Cara (Kristen Bush) nor Dan Cody — a passing figure in “The Great Gatsby” invoked here as a talisman of aspirational wealth. Rather, the story is set in motion by Kevin O’Neill (Rick Holmes), a private-equity manager and arrogant buttinsky who takes an interest in Cara. His interest isn’t sexual: Kevin is, for plot convenience, gay. What really turns him on is messing around in other people’s money.
This he does first by flashing a wad of bills at Cara, his feckless son’s English teacher. (She has given the boy an F on his “Great Gatsby” paper.) When this feint at bribery goes nowhere, Kevin invites Cara to join his once-a-month investment party, at which he and three rich friends study the market, pool their money, drink good wine and get even richer.
His immediate aim is to influence Cara’s vote on an advisory committee considering whether the two school districts — Stillwell’s and Patchett’s, both fictional — should merge. Or, as Kevin puts it, whether the communities should decide “to join the drug-addicted, poverty-ridden, low-achieving children of your little town to the drug-addicted but still high-achieving children of mine.” He’s against.
It would be hard to overstate how unlikely this plot is, and how much more so it gets. Soon Kevin’s attention turns from buying Cara’s vote to helping her daughter, a smart girl known as the “class poet” at Patchett, achieve her dreams of attending Vassar. In the play’s cosmology, this can happen only if she transfers to Stillwell for her senior year; otherwise she faces the horror of a state university or, even worse, community college.
Leave aside Kevin’s snobbery, which the play implies is not just a charismatic antihero’s pose but an actual virtue shared by anyone smart and honest. (Only Cara’s old friend Cathy, played by Roxanna Hope Radja, dares to suggest that there may be merit in working-class culture — and Cara dismisses her as an impediment to progress.) Also leave aside the myriad logical holes in the plot, so gaping that they make you wonder whether “Dan Cody’s Yacht” is meant as satire.
But no, Giardina is apparently quite earnest about rethinking the roots of class immobility. Cara and Kevin are his test case: she the ambivalent protégée he tries to refashion in his own image. (Kevin too grew up poor, and is, like her, a single parent.) Her initial resistance to this makeover is depicted as petty, a matter of self-defeating scruples and proletarian lack of gumption.
“What’s it like to sell yourself short,” Kevin asks her with typical boorishness, “and then force that legacy onto your daughter?”
That Cara might have a reasonable fear of the markets, and be more risk-averse with her tiny savings than a man with millions, is an annoyance Kevin treats as a character failure — and not Cara’s alone. That supposed failing is shared by everyone “dumb about money,” which is to say anyone not in possession of it.
This is all so loathsome that I found myself desperate to find even the smallest gap between Kevin’s position and the play’s. But if that gap exists, it is too overgrown with love of the villain for anyone else to enter. Giardina lets Kevin win every battle, even those he at first seems to lose, in the process endorsing his economic realpolitik as good medicine and his bullying as a badge of authenticity.
The production, directed by Doug Hughes, is too tasteful and basically naturalistic to offer much pushback. On John Lee Beatty’s gliding sets, everything is silky and serene, a combination that seems to endorse the values of the wealthy.
Kevin’s high spirits, especially in comparison with the anxiety and down-market gloom of Cara’s, underline those sympathies. Holmes, who recently played the victim of a leveraged buyout in Hughes’ production of Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk,” now gets revenge as the alpha moneybags gleefully fiddling with someone else’s balance sheet. I’m not sure it’s a compliment to say that he’s convincingly soulless here. But then the play’s attempts to provide him with depth are feeble: He listens to jazz.
Bush gets closer to something human. Her Cara is instantly likable in rejecting Kevin’s crass economic come-ons; you root for her priggishness. But she’s wilier than you expect, bringing to the part the same vulpine alertness to opportunity she demonstrated as a political Eve Harrington type in “The City of Conversation,” also by Giardina.
Like that earlier work, in which the late Jan Maxwell played a Washington hostess along the lines of Pamela Harriman, “Dan Cody’s Yacht” so heavily favors argument over character that the characters tend to crumble under the burden. A symptom of that problem is frequent and inexplicable self-contradiction, which may happen often enough in life but muddies the logic of a shortish play.
Indeed, by the end, incorruptible Cara has been converted to upward mobility; over drinks at an upscale Stillwell restaurant called L’Espace, her old friend Cathy predicts she will soon be buying toilet paper at Whole Foods.
The play sees it as hard-won wisdom that Cara is ready to embrace that extravagance and even has her parroting Kevin’s bootstrap nostrums. “We allow ourselves to be victims,” she tells Cathy, “because we think we’re too poor, or unlucky, to change our situations.”
So negative thinking is the root of inequality? That’s rich.
“Dan Cody’s Yacht”
Through July 8 at City Center, Manhattan; 212-581-1212, manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 2 hours.
By Anthony Giardina; directed by Doug Hughes; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Jen Schriever; sound and original music by Fitz Patton; dialect coach, Ben Furey; production stage manager, Stephen Ravet. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director, Barry Grove, executive producer.
Cast: Rick Holmes (Kevin O’Neill), Kristen Bush (Cara Russo), Roxanna Hope Radja (Cathy Conz), Casey Whyland (Angela Russo), John Kroft (Conor O’Neill), Jordan Lage (Geoff Hossmer), Meredith Forlenza (Pamela Hossmer) and Laura Kai Chen (Alice Tuan).
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.