Rob Maitner and John FitzGibbon. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Rob Maitner and John FitzGibbon. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Review by Kathleen Campion

The young staff that manages the crowd at the Duke is remarkably solicitous.  They smile, they chat, they take care of you, and they give the place the feel of a friendly neighborhood restaurant you want to come back to — if only the food was more inviting.

The premise of A Better Place seems tailor-made for an off B’way, New York audience. It’s about real estate on the UWS.  So, enough said.

Two classic city apartments face one another — one a stodgy, rent-controlled space, probably a walkup, with too-low ceilings and too much clutter; the other a glassy, modern flat with spectacular finishes and miles of square footage. You can almost smell the cedar in the walk-ins.

The two families who live in the two apartments can see each other, but only one is watching.  Les Covert (Rob Maitner) and Sel Trevoc (John Fitzgibbon) inhabit the crowded, lumpy place.  The senior partner, Sel, is a professor of philosophy waiting—one suspects in vain—for tenure.  Fitzgibbon wears the role completely; confident in a world-weary way and comfortable in his modest aspirations.  Les Covert’s the watcher.  He’s a waiter with no aspirations beyond getting a better apartment.  He’s fascinated by the family across the way, in the glass box.  In Rear Window-fashion, he adopts them, names them, loves, and envies them.

The folks in the glamorous space are a curious mom/dad/daughter mix.  The parents are ready to sell the apartment and retire to Florida—or so they say.  The twenty-seven-year old-daughter, Carol (Jessica Digiovanni), who still lives at home, engages in a curious and quite funny passion for real-estate brokers, “young men dressed like Mormons,” who manage literally to get her off by spouting “real estate porn” — Carrara cladding stone, sweeping views from wrap terraces, room-sized showers with scores of body jets — well, you get the idea.

This family in the four-million-dollar apartment is not what it seems.  The wife, Mary Roberts (Judith Hawking), is usually turned out in rather upscale wardrobe and jewelry, but we discover she works as a maid or waitress.

John Roberts (Edward James Hyland), the husband, is dressed in casual clothes with decent labels.  He has a passion for the ponies, and, we are told, he’s always been lucky, but we don’t know what he does. Mary worries that daughter Carol has no plan for when she and John leave for Florida. When Mom suggests Carole look for a job there is consternation and incredulity.  Why would she do that, Carol wonders.

The mother/daughter bits work quite well.  Mary has worked hard and is ready for the payoff of a comfortable retirement.  Her feckless daughter sneers at the notion of working, and their exchanges — Mary’s double takes on her kid’s sense of entitlement and Carol’s arrogance — are well drawn and well acted.

The gay couple are written as stereotypes.  The older, philosophical partner is lovely and only needy in the way older partners often are.  The younger character is superficial but suddenly opens up with a longing for the family he didn’t have.  That’s about as deep as it gets.  What’s missing is missing from the script.

Mary and John, have been living on borrowed time.  He has a gambling issue; she has a secret diversion.  Finally, all is revealed, but it takes way too long to get to it.  John shows us from the get-go that he doesn’t want to sell the apartment,  We know Mary is desperate to make the move and she shows us her desperation.  There’s even an Hitchcockian “MacGuffin” thrown in — a missing briefcase full of money, that seems little more than a desperate gambit to pull the two families together.

Early on Mary says she married a criminal…or someone thought she’d married a criminal.  In fact, she married a carpenter but you don’t know that for a long time, and the misdirection confuses more than it enriches.  Oddly, the guys in the rent-controlled apartmentthough not the audience are somehow able to guess John’s a carpenter and folds his overalls into a bag before coming home each night.

The sets were fabulous, the lighting and audio people did their jobs. (Oddly the heat was off or the AC on, and so, much of the time, the audience was swaddling in jackets and scarves).  There was plenty of movement and good use of limited space.  Even the curtain call was handled gracefully.

A BETTER PLACE began with a good idea but ultimately didn’t jell.  C The plot is thin and relies on cliché, on silly underlining — like naming the character who seeks to be seen Les Covert, and on the aforementioned MacGuffin.

My companion for the performance wisely said that a good play can survive bad acting.  And while there were good (Digiovanni and Fitzgibbon) — and also limited  (Hawking)— performances here, it was the play that didn’t deliver.

A Better Place – By Wendy Beckett; directed by Evan Bergman

WITH: Judith Hawking (Mary), Edward James Hyland (John), Rob Maitner (Les), John Fitzgibbon (Sel), Jessica Digiovanni (Carol), Michael Satow (Broker, Orderly, Waiter, Concierge).

Designed by David L. Arsenault; lighting by Russell H. Champa; sound by Sam Kusnetz; Costumes by Valerie Ramshur; producer The directors Company in association with Pascal Productions.  At the Duke, 229 West 42nd Street, Manhattan.  Through June 11.  Running time 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.