Sometimes plays qualify as fascinating not only because they’re good, but because they‘re strong. Sometimes they fascinate in ways that aren’t so good and not so strong. Sometimes they run hot and cold. Take Anthony Giardina’s new play Dan Cody’s Yacht, produced Off-Broadway by Manhattan Theatre Club. It has several extraordinarily well-written, well-directed (by Doug Hughes) and well-acted scenes. But just as often, it can be puzzling.
The opening scene lands squarely in hot-and-cold territory. When first spotted, Kevin O’Neill (Rick Holmes) is carrying on a parent-teacher conversation. He’s the parent, and Cara Russo (Kristen Bush) the English teacher who gave Kevin’s son Conor (a late-appearing John Kroft) an F for a paper on The Great Gatsby.
The impatient Cara had good reason to give the failing grade: Conor didn’t bother to read the novel. That rationale doesn’t fly with Kevin, however. Even if it’s little more than an attempt to cover up his deficiencies, he wonders why Conor’s paper isn’t worth more than an F. Kevin even throws down cash, but Cara refuses the bribe — he calls her “incorruptible.” Such is the style of this successful hedge fund maven, who next tries to woo Cara by insisting that he can build up her minuscule holdings enough to get her and daughter, Angela (Casey Whyland, also late-appearing) out of their poor neighborhood. He dangles the possibility of mother and daughter moving to the rich neighborhood across the river where he and Conor live — and where Cara teaches, and where Angela would attend the better high school. Unfortunately, Cara favors a civic plan to combine the districts. Kevin is very much against that.
What’s the problem with Giardina’s plotting so far? If Cara is so incorruptible — which the playwright neatly establishes in the initial sequence — she’d never succumb to Kevin’s bait: attending one of the stock-buying meetings he leads every three weeks.
In other words, there would be no play. So Giardina throws in enough curve balls to create Gatsby-sized suspension of disbelief. First, Kevin introduces Cara to his stereotypical crowd of snobs (Jordan Lage, Meredith Forlenza, Laura Kai Chen). Then, Angela and Conor meet each other. Then Kevin causes a rift between best friends Cara and Cathy Conz (Roxanna Hope Radja) when Cara’s new portfolio does take off — possibly giving her the wherewithal to move to that better part of town.
The most convincing scenes involve Conor and Angela with each other, or with their parents, or, at one point, as Kevin and Angela argue about her future inside a Starbucks as she sips a Frappuccino. (Crafty set designer John Lee Beatty employs a large turntable to shift from Cara’s class to her home to Kevin’s home and to various other locales.)
The confrontations are all so damn pithy because Giardina depicts these two 17-year-olds as wiser than their parents, whether it comes to accumulating money or education as a status symbol. While Cara would permit Angela, a talented incipient poet, to get accepted to Vassar by questionable means, for example, Angela doesn’t see community college as a terminally stultifying alternative. (The conflict also recalls Joshua Harmon’s acclaimed Admissions.)
Teenagers with commendable, well-grounded values is the best part of Giardina’s play. The dialogue in which Kevin talks to Conor about his love of The Great Gatsby and its effect on him as a poor, non-Gatsby-like boy, may be the drama’s best scene.
And speaking of Gatsby, Giardina does lift his title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. It comes up when Kevin reveals to Conor how he became intrigued by Jay Gatsby, who, in the story, grows intrigued by Dan Cody and his yacht, which is where young Jay Gatz starts to fashion his future.
But when Giardina isn’t at his best, odd things occur. While Kevin chats up Cara in that opening parlay, he stops to explain that he’s not coming on to her — he’s gay. Why the revelation? I don’t know. Does Giardina reckon that the audiences will assume they’re about to watch a rom-com if he fails to disabuse them of the idea? Never mind that in some of the subsequent scenes, Giardina’s script gives the distinct impression that Kevin is about to put the moves on Cara, though nothing of that nature happens between them.
Perhaps this ploy wouldn’t seem so strange were Kevin to mention, or act on, his sexual inclinations. Instead, Kevin’s homosexuality — a twist meant to keep the audience from being wrongly distracted — is, in fact, distracting. It’s a left swerve in a play that needs far fewer of them.