- A View of the Harbor
- By Richard Dresser
- Directed by Charles Towers
- Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once told Ernest Hemingway. “Yes,” Hemingway growled back. “They have more money.”
In this outrageous comedy, clearly the best thing in the very good CATF new play festival, there are some other significant differences. For one thing, rich people seem to eat their children. Then, when they’re done, they eat each other. They are relentless sharks who are never happier than when the pool is full of blood.
Happiness is the subject of playwright Richard Dresser’s particular inquiry these days. He has examined it by sociological lot: Augusta is his look at happiness among the working poor; The Pursuit of Happiness examines joy in the middle classes. In A View of the Harbor, by most accounts the best of the three plays, Dresser acquaints us with the hideous pleasures of the obscenely rich.
Which brings us to another difference: rich people are happier than the rest of us. A recent Brookings Institute Study (Stevenson and Wolfers) showed that rich people are happier than poor people and rich nations are happier, on the whole, than poor nations. (This study contradicts several older studies, which showed that happiness did not correlate with wealth). What’s more, according to the study, wealth is like any efficient hard drug: the more you have, the more you want, and true happiness lies in having wealth increase at a geometric pace.
Or, of course, you could have so much money that you could do whatever the hell you wanted, just like the zany denizens of Dresser’s ferocious landscape do. Paige (Anne Marie Nest), a young woman so wealthy that as a child she had her own personal Ecuadorian maid, has found her very own Poor Boy to patronize: Nick (Kelsey J. Nash), who works as a machinist in the local factory, and whose family lives in a rat-infested, shambling wreck of a home in backwoods Maine. Paige, amusing herself with Social Action, has dreams of transforming Nick into Proletariat Man, leading a Worker’s Revolt in the factory in which he works. She accompanies Nick to the Addams-Family style manse in which he grew up, and where his hard-drinking, stroke-stricken father awaits. Poor Nick! Poor, sexy Nick!
Poor Paige. Nick has some surprises for her. He isn’t poor. He isn’t even Nick. His name is Edwin (Nick was the name of his dead brother), and his family is wealthier than Paige ever dreamed of being. They owned the factory in which Nick now works. Then they sold it for gazillions in liquidity. Then Nick’s fearsome father Daniel (the wonderful Anderson Matthews) got a job as a consultant for the new owners, at a huge salary. The claustrophobic, self-referential, absolutely insane lifestyle Edwin’s family adopted drove him, years ago, out the door in search of honest work, and an honest life.
Now his father’s stroke has brought him back. Daniel may have suffered partial brain death, but it doesn’t get in the way of what he likes to do best, which is destroying the lives of those weaker than he is. He has rats in his home and no central heating not because he’s poor but because he’s rich – because he can live any way he chooses and he’ll be damned if give those handymen the satisfaction of paying their inflated prices. He stands around in his underwear waiting for an underling to take him to Washington – and then the underling comes to pick him up. “I thought you were delusional,” says Paige, who has adopted his blunt style in self-defense. “I am delusional,” Daniel says blandly. “And I’m going to Washington. I fit right in.”
This play works – and how! – because of its fearlessness. The characters, immunized by their wealth, say anything they want, and so does Dresser, who has the audacity to suggest that when we say we are above craven pandering after wealth, we don’t really mean it. The play also succeeds because of the quality of this crackling production, particularly the acting. It is interesting watching Rep players Matthews, Nest and Andrea Cirie (as Edwin’s haughty sister Kathryn) playing characters who are completely different than the ones they played in other CATF productions (Matthews and Cirie are in Pig Farm; Nest is in Stick Fly.) Cirie establishes her character literally the moment she steps out onto the stage, looking for something that she can kick under the porch.
The scintillating dialogue masks extraordinary pain. The defining moment in Edwin’s childhood is when his parents abandoned him to go to a party in Minnesota; he and his sister ate crackers in his cold house until they finally decided to escape to the welcoming, if puzzled, arms of their neighbors. Amusingly, Daniel barely remembers the incident at all – but he remembers the party, where he smoked marijuana and had a hell of a time. But this is really a story of the studied negligence the wealthy often have for their children, who are abandoned not for days but for years to an army of nannies, au pairs and tutors until they are belched out of the system at an age considered satisfactory to their parents.
But wealth conquers all, and the play’s inversion of a mediocre play’s predictable ending has the surprise victims stuttering gape-jawed in the wake of the winners’ departure. It is swell to be happy, but it is even better to be rich and happy.
- Running Time: 1 hour fifty minutes (no intermission).
- Tickets & Schedule: Contemporary American Theater Festival
- Where: Shepherds University . Studio Theater. Shepherdstown, WV