“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.