On stage: good intentions vs. harsh realities

Eastern Standard Comedy by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Michael Engler. Richard Greenberg's ``Eastern Standard'' concerns a group of upscale Manhattanites who experience a twinge of what used to be known as social consciousness. The experiment in do-goodism begins all unintentionally in one of those continental-type New York restaurants where the bill of fare is more appetizing than the food. Stephen Wheeler (Dylan Baker) and his fellow Dartmouth alumnus Drew Paley (Peter Frechette) are discussing the twists and turns of their professional and romantic lives.

Stephen is a highly regarded architect in a firm whose ruination of New York he deplores even as he contributes to the buildings that gentrify poor neighborhoods (thus increasing homelessness) and block out sunlight. Homosexual Drew earns a good living from paintings which satisfy his clientele but which make no pretensions to being art. As the comedy at the Manhattan Theatre Club begins, Stephen is telling the cynical Drew about his infatuation with the young woman at an adjoining table whom he has not yet contrived to meet. The young woman turns out to be Phoebe Kidde (Patricia Clarkson), a successful investment counselor caught up in an untidy affair that may even involve her in a Wall Street scandal.

Thus Mr. Greenberg sets the scene for a rites-of-spring romantic comedy in strictly contemporary terms. The trivial sophistication of the situation is rudely interrupted by the appearance of May Logan (Anne Meara), a foul-mouthed bag lady who has invaded the classy premises to ``sip some Perrier Water.'' ``Eastern Standard'' adds substance to its light comedy content in a long second act devoted equally to romantic partnerings and social experiment. In an idealistic gesture, Stephen has invited May, along with Ellen (Barbara Garrick), the restaurant's actress-in-waiting, for a weekend at his beachfront house.

The weekend stretches into two weeks. May proves to be an excellent cook and Ellen an indispensable helper. She even offers their services as permanent caretakers. At which point, Stephen recognizes that his well-intentioned gesture has made no more of a contribution to relieving a particular dilemma than has his unrealistic project for housing the homeless. After a party that turns into an alcoholic binge, Stephen and his friends wake up to discoveries about themselves and each other that bring Mr. Greenberg's wry comedy to a satisfactory resolution.

As directed by Michael Engler, the fine Manhattan Theatre Club cast responds brilliantly to both the glossy wit and the substantial undercurrents of ``Eastern Standard.'' The disturbingly tragic side of urban malaise is specifically represented by Kevin Conroy as Phoebe's homosexual brother, a successful TV director whose illness has been diagnosed as AIDS. Mr. Baker and Miss Clarkson personify a pair of romantic principals in the modern manner. Miss Meara adroitly encompasses the range of May's behavior, whether the bag lady is shouting obscenities or serving up a gourmet meal.

Philipp Jung's settings, Dennis Parichy's lighting (especially in the sun-drenched beachfront scenes), and Candice Donnelly's costumes are all very `a la mode. ``Eastern Standard,'' which was originally produced by the Seattle Repertory Theatre, continues a sold-out run at the Manhattan Theatre Club through Sunday. It begins previews at Broadway's Golden Theatre on Dec. 19, with an official opening Jan. 5.

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