It can’t be said that playwright/director Arthur Laurents, at the young age of 91, has lost his touch, at least when it comes to directing and his facility and fervor when he puts on his writing cap. Two seasons ago he helmed the exciting Broadway revival of the musical “Gypsy,” for which he wrote the original book. This season he gripped the reins again for the triumphant return of “West Side Story” to Broadway. The prolific author has now returned to the George Street Playhouse, long a nurturing and supportive partner, with his latest play, “New Year’s Eve.”
During one of the many flippantly condescending conversations that traverse “New Year’s Eve,” a character says “this seems like a revival of ‘Design for Living.’” It quickly becomes quite evident how much Laurents’ play actually appears to be channeling aspects of Noel Coward’s sophisticated 1932 sex comedy. Unfortunately, any suggestion of Cowardian wit and charm, if not the talk of sex, are in short supply in this play about some very patronizing theater folk and their considerably less interesting lovers. What isn’t in short supply is Laurents’ flair for the purely theatrical and director David Saint’s ability to validate this playwright’s mission.
The play takes place in New York City over a succession of New Year’s eves, where one presumably is expected to drink a lot of champagne and say things that should probably be left unsaid. An impressive cast has been engaged to discharge the chatter whilst assuming all the posturing and posing that might have framed any number of comedies during the 1930s. Isabel, a married actress (Marlo Thomas), has reluctantly realized that she is past her prime, but not completely past her past that involved an affair with a much younger man. Perhaps it was her revenge for finding out that her playwright husband, Gil (Keith Carradine) ,also had a much younger male lover.
Nothing too shocking about that except that Gil’s lover, Justin (Peter Frechette), is also the family accountant and business manager. Justin has managed to infiltrate sufficiently to be considered one of the family that also includes Isabel and Gil’s daughter, Samantha (Natasha Gregson Wagner). Samantha has her own apartment and her current status as a TV “soap queen” — but is destined to change with the help of Isabel, who still has clout. “You’ll work at night with the exceptional, instead of during the day with the mediocre,” she tells Samantha, who instinctively knows she is destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
Complicating matters is Mikey (Walter Belenky), a somewhat more realistic yet amiably impassioned young optometrist who has fathered Samantha’s baby and who may or may not be playing the sincerity card in the midst of what Isabel calls “honest pretense.” Mikey lives alone but is willing to offer sex and even baby-sitting in an emergency. But more importantly he is willing to wait for Samantha while she has a fling with the director of her breakthrough play, which a critic has called “unstructured ramble.” Now there’s a critique to tempt someone so inclined.
Instead of chasing each other around London and Paris, this ubiquitously extended family descend upon each other’s New York apartments that designer James Youman has cleverly conceived as a vision of similarities in beige. Marlo Thomas, the star of the popular 1960s TV comedy series “That Girl,” uses her now husky Tallulah voice as effectively as she does her keen dramatic instincts to rise imperiously above the cliches that define her character. Carradine, most recently seen Off Broadway in “Mindgame,” looks dashing in black tie. Although he plays a first-class jerk, he is credible enough as the bisexual, conflicted playwright.
The usually excellent Peter Frechette gains our sympathy, but it is not for how he copes with the results of a colonoscopy. I suspect that the lingering mouth to mouth kiss he shares with Carradine lasts longer than the one between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun.” As the insinuating Mikey, Belenky, at least, has the distinction of being the least annoying and the most ingratiating among the characters. Gregson, who bears a remarkable resemblance to her late mother, Natalie Wood, is disarmingly provocative in the one role that that description might apply. Director David Saint keeps the players and the play moving briskly along in the thrall of its own design.
“New Year’s Eve,” through Sunday, May 10, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $28 to $64. 732-246-7717.