View of the Harbor at Herberger Theater Is Saved by Its Cast
In the whiny author's notes printed in the program for Richard Dresser's A View of the Harbor, the playwright carps about how hard it is to write plays. Because this commentary is punctuated with several sour jabs at theater critics, I was hoping I'd like his new play more than I did, to avoid charges that I'm evening the score by pointing out that his story meanders and lacks gumption.
The Actors Theatre production makes as much as can be made from Dresser's rambling family comedy, thanks to some fine acting and tight direction. But this, the third in a trilogy of plays he's written and this Phoenix-based company has produced about Americans' pursuit of happiness, feels like a tacked-on coda that reaches for Arthur Miller but winds up at, well, second-rate Richard Dresser.
The first in Dresser's "happiness" series, Augusta, looked at where the working poor find their joy, while the second installment, The Pursuit of Happiness, concerned itself with the middle class' sources of pleasure. In A View of the Harbor, we're treated to the happiness triumvirate of the wealthy: power, money, and wildly eccentric families. Years after he fled, Nick returns to his family's ramshackle home to say goodbye to his father, who's reportedly had a stroke and is dying. But Dad is, in fact, fine; Nick's sister Katharine has lured him home in hopes he'll stay and take over caring for their increasingly crazy dad. Nick brings with him his latest girlfriend, Paige, the single most repellent theater character in recent memory — the sort of woman who stops in mid-sentence to remind you how wealthy her parents are, that she grew up with a "staff" and that she loves Nick because he's a blue-collar factory worker, which she finds sexy.
In fact, Nick's real name is Edward, and he's not poor. His nutball father is the owner of the colossal munitions plant in which Nick toils and where he met Paige, who was dabbling in union organization. Before this revelation and after we have heard the backstories about how Nick wrecked his children's lives, he sets about ruining Paige's weekend, just for the heck of it, calling her a slut and insulting her pedigree.
The melee is made pleasurable by stunning acting turns by the nearly perfect cast. No one will be surprised to know that Cathy Dresbach transforms Katharine from a truly nasty neurotic into a compassionate character for whom we're rooting by play's end. With nothing more than subtle body language and several quick changes in her tone of voice, she lets us know that Katharine isn't entirely convinced she's all that weird; that she knows, somehow, that she can make it in the world once she shakes off the shackles of her shark of a father.
Dad is played extravagantly by Ben Tyler, whose performance gives depth to a character who could easily have spun into stereotype. His patriarch is streaked with distress about the turn of events in his life, but it's misery folded into a comic roar that's never not a pleasure to behold. Christian Miller provides beautiful contrast as the cheerful Nick, a worthy, hardworking lad determined to earn his place in society; Miller's is a finely judged performance that makes the most of an anxious vulnerability and flair for comedy.
Ron May's direction slyly catches the spirit of Dresser's play, which often can't decide whether it's a morals tale or a family allegory. It would have been nice if May had toned down Melody Butiu's shrill performance as the obnoxious rich girl. Butiu plays at an entirely different speed than her castmates, and I never warmed up to her rich-girl-slumming routine and never believed that she was either in love with her new beau or scheming to bag another.
And what, after three plays on the subject, is Dresser's final word on happiness? That rich people are more content than the rest of us. A slew of books and a newish Brookings Institute Study have recently confirmed that no-brainer, but in the end, none of these has been so entertaining as watching Ron May's (mostly) fine cast elevate an also-ran play.
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