Review: Dollars and Sense Diverge in ‘Dan Cody’s Yacht’ at MTC
By Justin Sharon, Contributing Writer, June 7, 2018
The Great Gatsby sold so poorly in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime that his last royalty check amounted to a decidedly unlucky $13.13. The author was living anything but large when he died, with crates of his derided Jazz Age chronicle languishing unread in warehouses. Today, a coveted first edition of what is widely acknowledged as the Great American Novel will set you back several hundred thousand dollars. Opportunity eventually knocked for Fitzgerald, but far too late to benefit him.
Taking advantage of opportunities in real time is at the heart of Dan Cody’s Yacht, a new play commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club that takes a scene in Gatsby as its inspiration. (Cody was a wealthy mining mogul whose fleeting role in Fitzgerald’s opus belied his outsize impact in the protagonist’s life).
This world premiere production, written by Anthony Giardina under the direction of Tony-winner Doug Hughes, artfully addresses the intersection of income inequality and educational opportunity in America. It centers on a contentious referendum to merge two wildly disparate public school systems in Eastern Massachusetts, downtrodden Patchett and upscale Stillwell. The settings are fictional, but a similar scenario actually occurred during the early 1990s in the twin Bay State towns of Acton and Maynard.
Cara Russo is the seemingly incorruptible schoolteacher of modest means who lives in a fading former mill town and wholeheartedly advocates the merger. Kevin O’Neill, meanwhile, is a wealthy hedge fund father of one of her failing students, and dead set against the proposal. His attempt to both bribe her and game the system in the very first scene sets the stage for a subsequent plot thick with moral quandaries.
Though the two main characters are both single parents separated by only a river, they move in completely different circles. The play pits the worlds of Wachusett Community College and student debt against Ivy covered walls and debutante balls. On one side of the divide “We’ve got an old pitiful school where the kids are reading copies of ‘Exodus’ Scotch-taped together.” On the other, helicopter parents brag how they’ve “Hired this genius Harvard graduate who makes violins in Sudbury and charges $350 an hour to tutor” their kids for the SAT.
George Bush once memorably said he didn’t “do nuance” but leading actress Kristen Bush, presumably no relation, imbues her character with wonderfully subtle shades of grey as she grapples with the myriad ethical predicaments Cara encounters. For his part, Rick Holmes serves up a similarly well-rounded portrayal of a father living a little too vicariously through his son. The veteran actor of TV’s Law & Order successfully conveys a shady private equity type who disdains legal niceties, even as his balanced depiction adroitly avoids turning him into the devil incarnate.
A talented ensemble cast includes Casey Whyland, Cara’s teenage daughter possessed of infinitely more wisdom than many of the adults around her, Roxanna Hope Radja, Cara’s friend with a wicked good blue collar Beantown accent, and Laura Kai Chen, who plays Tiger Mom and Tufts International Relations professor Alice Tuan. Scenic designer John Lee Beatty also deserves an honorable mention for his inventive rotating set, which seamlessly alternates between high school classroom, high-end restaurant, and home interior.
Fitzgerald famously opined that “There are no second acts in American lives,” but much of this play’s most riveting action comes after intermission. The closing stretch deftly combines dramatic crescendos — one compelling mother-daughter confrontation ends with the former literally crying on the floor – with a provocative and enigmatic ending. Theatergoers in search of closure may be disappointed, but the play is to be commended for asking important questions of its audience.
Debuting in the wake of school graduation season, and with recent teacher strikes over pay still bobbing on the surface, the issues raised by Dan Cody’s Yacht are especially timely. Visitors to midtown Manhattan’s City Center will learn some valuable lessons by way of the Boston suburbs.
Dan Cody’s Yacht (world premiere) presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, running through July 8, 2018. Approximately two hours, with one 15-minute intermission. Written by Anthony Giardina. Directed by Doug Hughes; scenic design by John Lee Beatty; costume design by Catherine Zuber; lighting design by Jen Schriever; music and sound design by Fitz Patton.
Cast: Kristen Bush, Meredith Forlenza, Laura Kai Chen, Rick Holmes, John Kroft, Jordan Lage, Roxanna Hope Radja, and Casey Whyland.
Cover: John Croft and Casey Whyland in MTC’s Dan Cody’s Yacht; photo: Joan Marcus.