Poor Rich People

It's taken 37 years, but South Coast Repertory is finally staging a play set in modern Orange County. The second half of Richard Greenberg's new play, Everett Beekin, unfolds along the Orange County coastline and on the Unity Bridge, that weirdly lit eyesore that spans the mighty divide known as Bristol Street, connecting the geographic wonders of South Coast Plaza and the nearby South Coast Metro office/hotel/entertainment complex.

Granted, the Orange County on display here is filtered through Greenberg, a successful East Coast writer whose experiences, we're guessing, have been limited to those of a visitor: nice hotels, good restaurants and Diedrich Coffee. Instead of pushcart vendors in Santa Ana, we get venture capitalists in Newport Beach; instead of beach closures and exploding rates of skin cancer, we're encouraged to romp playfully on the sand.

Still, it's intriguing to watch a playwright attempt to explore this county. And Greenberg is one of the finest. In Everett Beekin, he shines a light on Orange County's well-lit veneer and its empty inside, the tension between its appearance and its reality.

The first act, set in the late 1940s in Manhattan's Lower East Side, concerns a family of four Jewish women, most of whom spend their time around a table kvetching. There's Ma (Carole Goldman) and her three grown daughters: the eldest and coldest, Sophie (the typically flawless Kandis Chappell); the saucier middle daughter, Anna (a too Fran Drescher-like Nike Doukas); and the idealistic Miri (Tessa Auberjonois). There are some funny lines-lots of Yiddish words and humor-but the plot as such revolves around one Jimmy Constant (an excellent Adam Scott), a gentile who wants to take the youngest sister to California, where he thinks his fortune awaits.

Rather than gold mines, Jimmy is banking on little white pills. It seems he's met a drug-making genius named Everett Beekin. Beekin trades in analgesics and tranquilizers, for which (Jimmy tells the skeptical older sisters) there's a growing market. Beekin and Jimmy want to start their own manufacturing company in a part of Southern California that's just south of Los Angeles.

The second act is set in late 1990s Orange County. Jimmy Constant is nowhere to be seen, but his dream of a new life is coming true for Nell, daughter of one of those Jewish sisters (also played by Doukas).

Nell is a certified born-again Orange Countian. She's shed her Jewish roots and Long Island upbringing for life in the golden hue of the here and now. Her main ritual consists of cocktails on the hour. She met her current beau at (where else?) a plastic-surgery clinic. She gives tours of the Unity Bridge and revels in the low-crime, uncomplicated (compared with her Long Island Jewish upbringing) lifestyle of the Newport Coast.

Meanwhile, her sister, Celia (played by Chappell), is visiting from Long Island. She is terrified by the smiling faces, the shimmering bodies roasting on the beach and the ubiquitous cheerful greetings. At one point, she decries her feeling of being "aggressed upon by courtesy." Yet she must admit the place can grow on a person-like a sarcoma.

Nell embodies those transplants who buy into the faade of Orange County but who are, at the same time, merely one canceled laser-wrinkle-removing appointment away from a nervous breakdown. But Greenberg uses a young Orange County couple for his most interesting commentary on the place we call home. Ev (Scott), the grandson of drug pioneer Everett Beekin, is set to marry Laurel (Auberjonois), Nell's daughter. The couple appear perfect for each other, but as the act unfolds, we see that they both have dreams-and critical flaws-that prevent a perfect union.

On the surface, Ev is the apogee of the Orange County experience. He stands to inherit gobs of money from his father, who inherited loads of money from his. He drives a sporty roadster and spends his days and nights cavorting on the beach. He's impossibly good-looking with an impossibly promising future.

But on the inside, Ev is a mess-can't sleep, can't communicate beyond broken sentences, can't articulate a clear thought. This is no surfer caricature; this lost soul is bright enough to realize he is deeply ashamed-ashamed that there's no self to himself.

Greenberg seems to say that this is the dark side of Orange County promise. The great piles of wealth frequently produce nothing more than great piles of wealth-and thousands of wealthy individuals whose small lives are no bigger than their bank accounts.

That's a theme that's likely to excite many theatergoers and offend many others: that money and soul are inversely related. It's a popular and even populist theme, one that must account for the success of such execrable entertainments as Titanic-in which the wealthy lead lives of quiet first-class desperation while the poor are dancing, drinking, and sexing it up in steerage.

Religion isn't the opiate of the people, but this sort of class envy just might be. It allows us to sit around knowing-really knowing because our ability to get through the day depends on it-that Bill Gates may have $90 billion, but he's basically empty.

Playing to this theme, Ev's father observes that Everett Beekin, the analgesics magnate, worked hard so that his son and grandson could live uncomplicated lives. But wealth became a curse: "Poor Ev," the father concludes.

Poor all of us. One way or another, most of us got here because we-or our parents or grandparents-left someplace else to reinvent ourselves on the Left Coast of America. Greenberg wouldn't be the first person to raise the possibility that we lost something important in the move.

Everett Beekin at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Oct. 8. $28-$49.


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