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The Whitest Show On Earth
SCR's The Injured Party offers Caucasian comfort comedy to Gentiles and Jews
Not every play has to embody some deep, thought-provoking message or didactic chaotic element; sometimes it's just about enjoying someone else's mishaps as entertainment. But even then, something should scratch the underbelly of thought or, at the very least, play up a worthy gimmick—especially if it's a play about well-to-do white people. Think Oscar Wilde's very white societal sucker-punch The Importance of Being Ernest, or even Neil Simon's super-white, super-gimmicky mashup The Odd Couple. And the key to endearing your white, barely troubled-yet-flawed characters to an audience is to make the nature of their flaws relatable, or at least have the character get a rousing slap of karma by the end.
In director Trip Cullman's staging of Richard Greenberg's The Injured Party at South Coast Repertory, however, all we get are rich people whining about money and societal stature. Enlightening? No. Comfortable? Quite. Especially if you're white.
The play's title suggests someone is injured, but we're still not sure who that might be. Seth is the gay, Jewish, 40-ish grandson of feisty, wealthy matriarch Maxene. Seth feels terribly slighted that his gram won't give him more money than she already does, so he embarks on a deceptive plan in which he woos her to get the loot, then rejects her so she dies sooner than later of a broken heart.
His biggest qualms with Maxene? She celebrates "Jew Christmas," wants him to use his Jewish last name instead of the Gentile one he's assumed, and wishes he'd get serious about his flailing artistic projects. Oh, and she was mean to Seth's hippie mother back in the day, driving away her own daughter as many Moral Majority parents did to their drug-taking counterculture children. If Seth had been likable, if Maxene had been detestable, and if this had been a farce, it might have worked. Unfortunately, it's all in reverse.
Besides Seth being a narcissistic asshole and Maxene a rather sweet old gal, the play dances around any substantive issues worth mining: Jews who celebrate Christmas to fit in with WASPs; a damaged grandson who blames his grandmother for his estrangement from his own mother; possible shame over Jewish lineage; and the shattering of self-esteem when a silver-spooner must actually compete in a world not rigged for his success. Instead, it offers us something very white: keeping pain buried beneath the surface, instead focusing on who's first in line on the will.
Injured only offers the insipidness of watching a bunch of elites flounder in what they consider "white hell"—dealing with a kleptomaniac family friend, an annoying pseudo art connoisseur, having to live in a fancy apartment instead of getting to live in a mansion, and fretting over inheritance.
And while we appreciate playwright Greenberg's attempt to make Seth's being gay a non-issue by merely leaving it at that—though that in itself is unnerving "don't ask, don't tell" tokenism—rehashing the never-actualized-in-real-life idea that some cute young woman who has man troubles (in this case, Seth's best friend Becca) would actually shack up with her gay pal and raise a baby (because, you know, a woman is content so long as there's a man in the house and a baby in her arms) was just too Will & Grace/Madonna/Rupert Everett tired and further proof that Greenberg refused to dig deeper. Besides, Seth didn't deserve a baby and a cute straight-girl partner. According to the white laws of my own family, he deserved a position on the board and a condo in the Keys.
That's punishment, by the way.
The Injured Party at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5500; www.scr.org. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through May 11. $20-$62.
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