One of the biggest surprises about “Privilege,” the funny and thought-provoking Paul Weitz play at Interplayers, is that most of it isn’t about privilege – it’s about nonprivilege.
The story centers on two brothers, Porter, 17, and Charlie, 13, who grow up in a rich and, yes, privileged, Manhattan family. They are the kind of kids who are not even aware that their Latino maid is a servant. They think she is just their friend who happens to pick up all of their clothes.
Yet about one-third of the way through this play, their father, Ted, is arrested for insider trading. His assets are frozen, and the family’s millions disappear.
The rest of the play is about how the family, and especially the boys, deals with this sudden comedown in income and status. In many ways, the play is about how the privileged in the U.S. don’t have a clue about how pampered they are – until they’re not.
To take one example of many: Nobody in the family even knows how to make a bed. This is illustrated in one extended and excruciatingly tense scene in which the disgraced father attempts to teach the boys the art of bed-making. Kicking of sheets ensues.
Paul Weitz is best known as a filmmaker (“American Pie,” “About a Boy,” “Little Fockers”) and I would give him a solid B as a playwright. The dialogue is sometimes forced, and the story’s arc is a bit choppy. Yet Weitz has done a fine job of taking a simple and often funny story and infusing it with insights into America’s have-and-have-not social structure.
The moral is simple: The “haves” shouldn’t get too smug. They, too, can become “have nots” overnight.
The play’s biggest strength is its extraordinary insight into the adolescent mind. This is especially impressive in this production, since the two young actors – Christopher Rounsville as Porter and Bryton Martin as Charlie – are so effective. Martin completely nails the 13-year-old Charlie’s response to this crisis. Charlie engages in magical thinking – all he has to do is write a letter to the New York Times, explaining his father’s innocence. He is earnest, sweet and achingly vulnerable.
Porter is far more cynical. He fears his father is guilty. He cruelly taunts Charlie for his naiveté – does he think the prosecutor pulled their dad’s name out of a hat? – but Rounsville makes us see that his cynicism is a pose, a mask for his profound fear.
Maria Caprile’s direction was especially effective in the scenes between the two boys – scenes that form the core of the play. They taunt one another, they fight and they routinely disgust each other. But in the end, they end up in each other’s arms. They need each other in profound ways.
The only adult that comes alive is the housekeeper, Erla, played with fire by Sarah Denison. She’s the one who has to tell the boys the truths they need to hear: You’re broke, and you both need to toughen up.
The parents? Despite valiant efforts by Jeffrey Sanders as the father and Tami Grady Rotchford as the mother, these characters are not nearly as well-written. The father is a straw man, there for us to mock. The mother is ineffective and surprisingly weak for a financier’s wife.
The stiffness in many of the movements and line-readings made it hard for me to get fully immersed in the characters’ emotional lives. The awkwardness is often intentional – they are WASPs, after all – but this production overdoes it.
Yet the production came through solidly in the ways that counted the most. You’ll empathize with these two boys, not as spoiled rich kids, but as sensitive young men trying to cope, at the worst possible time in their lives, with complete upheaval.