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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Eastern Standard’

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“Eastern Standard,” which continues at Fresno State through Saturday, aptly captures a particular time, place and demographic. It’s the late ’80s in New York City, and we meet a group of (mostly) wealthy young professionals grappling with the issues of the times. Those issues include HIV/AIDS, rampant materialism, the gap between the rich and poor — and even the contemporary art scene. (You know you’ve entered a Manhattan-centric world when there’s a joke about Julian Schnabel.)

Richard Greenberg’s 1988 play is well written, and there are some solid performances. But the whole experience made me think about the question of relevance.

“Eastern Standard” just doesn’t seem like a very strong selection for a university theater department that last month staged a 1944 period piece written in 1981 (“A Soldier’s Play”), is following this one with an adaptation of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” continues with a 1743 comedy by a Venetian playwright titled “Servant of Two Masters” and will then finish up with the not-exactly-hot-off-the-presses “The Glass Menagerie.” If “Eastern Standard” is meant to put a contemporary twist on the season, then ouch.

There are two couples to follow: Stephen (Aaron J. McGee) and Phoebe (Kelsey C. Oliver), an architect and financier; and Peter (Daniel Rodriguez) and Drew (Dane Oliver), a TV executive and artist. Their lives intertwine one lunch at a restaurant when a schizophrenic homeless woman, May (Shari Wilcox), who is off her meds, throws a tantrum but then befriends the waitress (Erin R. Luczo).

Fast forward in the second act to Stephen’s house on the beach, where the yuppie friends grapple with illness, relationship woes and issues of social inequality.

Director J. Daniel Herring, working with an in-the-round scenic design by Jeff Hunter, adequately connects with the more emotional parts of the play, of which there are many. (Bob Creasy’s period costumes are nice, but Jennifer Sullivan’s lighting design could use more nuance in those emotional moments.) But I’m not so convinced by Herring’s interpretation of the comic elements. Posh New York cynical humor requires a distinctive tone and borderline obnoxious self-assurance that just wasn’t persuasive enough here.

There’s some good acting otherwise. Rodriguez brings a strong, mopey conviction to the role, and his scenes with the snappy Dane Oliver are vibrant. I also found a lot to like in Kelsey Oliver’s headstrong Phoebe.

Still, I keep coming back to the question of why this play. I don’t have an issue with older plays, but I do with stale ones. I wonder how a younger generation in Fresno connects with this account of a disease that dare not speak its name — things have changed a lot since then — and the oft-depicted archetype of whiny yuppies contemplating the unfairness of life while shuffling between luxurious winter and summer residences. After viewing “Eastern Standard,” I’m wishing that Fresno State theater in the future could spend more time looking forward and less backward.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Eastern Standard’"

Yes!!!!!! says:

Hahaha! D! I couldn’t agree more!

Every time I see a Fresno production about New York, I think: why would I want to see this show?
I don’t care about New York.
I don’t care about New Yorkers.
If I did, I would live there instead of here.

Most Fresnans’ NY experience is limited to vacations, and reruns of Seinfeld (filmed in LA). So how could any of us really sympathize with characters whose struggles include living in a 5-story walkup?

Are the people choosing these shows just starstruck by doing a “NEW YORK” show?

Don’t tell me there’s no work relevant to California.

JWFresno says:

First of all, I believe the responsibility of those selecting what will and will not be played at the university theatre is to the traditional college-age student, but also to the more mature audience, the returning students, staff and faculty, as well as the many patrons from the community. True, “Eastern Standard� showcased themes of HIV/AIDS, classism, love and romance, and finding purpose in life, but while the play may have been set in the late ‘80s, the topics remain relevant today. I feel certain that our students are sophisticated enough to make the transition. Not only are the topics relevant, but I believe it was courageous of the director to bring this play that begged discussion of these themes to our conservative region. As a staff member at Fresno State, I work with many LGBT+ students whom I believe found the play refreshing and relevant to their 20 something lives.

Sharon Wilcox says:

Mr. Munro,
You say that you wonder how a younger generation in Fresno can connect to issues of the times (the late ’80s) in “Eastern Standard”. Surely college students possess intelligence to see timely themes in Richard Greenberg’s play, which tells a story of relationships and highlights the gap between the rich and the poor.
A sister deals with the news that her brother has a terminal disease. Those of us who have watched people we love deal with their mortality after doctors have done all they can do, recognize the relevance of those characters’ struggles. When the recently-diagnosed man says he is going to look like hell, his friend’s loving response is, “I’m planning not to notice.” AIDS does not pose the automatic death sentence it did in the 1980s. However, cancer still drags many families through such pain.
Homelessness and hunger continue to be a serious problem for many individuals in the city of Fresno today. I’m grateful for Poverello House, Fresno Rescue Mission, Fresno Metro Ministry, Community Food Bank and other groups in which local folks work to fight this issue – not just an issue for New York of the 1980s – but an issue of our time within our own community.
You wrote that “Eastern Standard” is well-written. I agree. I found it funny and touching.

DW says:

Come on Donald…If your going to be a whiny theater critic that whines about what is relevant to today’s theater audience please do it with some validity. Maybe you would have enjoyed it more if the play’s characters were texting each other.

Robert says:

Perhaps this particular production misses the mark as an edgy contemporary play in the Fresno State season. But your review seems to be criticizing the entire FSU season. No other producing organization in our region offers the breadth of plays that Fresno State does year after year: American classics, contemporary plays, diversity plays, classical plays (including regular Shakespearean offerings), musicals, etc. It would be so much easier for Fresno State to just produce small cast contemporary plays. However, this would not be serving the training needs of the students, and certainly not be serving the department’s mission of service to the valley. There is a reason why Fresno State is such a large theatre arts department. It is THE place to go and train in a variety of theatrical styles. Where else could we see commedia dell’arte? There is a huge new trend in mounting radio plays. Tennessee Williams can still resonate with a modern audience without cell phones and referenes to 9/11. Just once could you give the FSU Theatre Arts Department a little appreciation for their ambitious seasons?

Heather P. says:

I’m not sure that it is Munro’s job to show appreciation. As a critic, I think his job is to question and challenge the work presented with discernment. (Do I always agree with his discernment, no, but I respect his ability to bring up important issues and questions regarding our productions.)

How we decide what is relevant, how we go about choosing shows to present to the community, and how successful we are at making our work’s themes timely and effective are all good questions.

As someone who struggles with choosing which shows to do when and why, I know how complicated a question that is. I’m not sure that there is a perfect formula for choosing relevant and engaging shows. But opening up discussion of the pitfalls and problems with the process is a good thing for all of Fresno’s theatrical artists.

paiadd says:

I believe you totally missed the point of the play. Fresno misses a lot of what is going on in the rest of the world. This was an amazing choice considering where we live. I am sure that the senior citizins in the audience were challanged by Peter and Drew’s building relationship,reference to “sick” aids issues, the way people react to the mentally ill we see homeless on our streets daily.Thank you J. Daniel for giving us something beautifully done, and thought provoking. This is still the American reality brought to the stage, everything isn’t bread and butter theater.. Thank God.

Donald Munro says:

A few observations from Donald:

1. I’m aware of the educational mission of a university theater program — and how difficult it can be to balance conflicting pedagogical, community and box-office factors. I elaborated on the theater department’s season in its entirety not to mock it — I have strongly supported many older plays produced at the university in the past — but to make the point that when Fresno State chose this title for its “contemporary slot,” which it appears to have done with “Eastern Standard,” it could have made a stronger selection. I don’t think this play was a daring choice at all, as some commenters have suggested, and to laud the selection of a 22-year-old play that hasn’t aged well as somehow being daring because of “where we live” is a weak argument, I think. (There are many, many plays that would have been far more daring, or at least more contemporary.) One piece of information I didn’t include in my review, because of space, is that a production of “Eastern Standard” was performed at Fresno State in 1991 (not by the theater department but by the now-defunct Fresno Public Theater.) Director Brad Myers then re-staged it, also on campus, in 1993 for the Contemporary Theatre Company. Cutting-edge this show in 2010 is not.

2. Relevance is in the eye of the beholder, of course. “Eastern Standard” is a show about wealthy Manhattan yuppies. Maybe it’s my problem because I’ve seen so many plays (and movies and TV shows) about a similar demographic. Similarly, a couple of decades in the evolution of HIV/AIDS is a huge chunk of time. A lot of things have changed: treatment, societal attitudes, demographic trends, etc. On the HIV/AIDS timeline, “Eastern Standard” is a history play, and Fresno State already has the vintage-theater angle covered quite well this season, I’d say.

3. What’s with the cell-phone references? I didn’t even mention them. I’d better nip this one in the bud before the rumor gets out that I’m pushing for Amanda in “Glass Menagerie” to whip out her iPhone.

4. I do appreciate reader comments. The Internet has made reviews more of a two-way conversation than a one-way street, and I’m glad. I think theater should be an ongoing discussion, and as Heather writes, questions can be good things.

May says:

I find value and relevance in any artistic expression that invites me to contemplate as well as enjoy.

As I watched the play, I was taken back to the late 80s and reminded again of how we thought about and what we thought of the mystery disease. The power of this threat of the unknown was insidious.

So here we are 20+ years later, and while the threat of that disease is no less real, it no longer carries the power of the unknown. And that led me to wonder what the analogous issues might be in our current time. What issues are we now reacting to in ignorance rather than responding to based on knowledge or experience. And, how little time it may take for us to move from reacting to responding.