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Theater Review: 'Highest Standard of Living,' A New Play, Opens Off-Broadway

(c) Associated Press

November 14, 1986

By Michael Kuchwara

NEW YORK (AP) - In Keith Reddin's "Highest Standard of Living," the hero is paralyzed by paranoia. So is the play, a one-note black comedy that hammers home its point in the first act and then has no place to go.

Bob (Steven Culp) is an American graduate student whose speciality is Soviet literature of the 1920s and '30s. He travels to Moscow to study but before he can open a book, he is waylaid by a series of misadventures that land him in the hospital and the audience in a state of confusion.

Among Bob's visitors are his mom, his aunt and uncle from Kansas (dressed as refugees from the Moscow Circus), an amorous doctor, a fellow patient who owns every record made by Little Richard and a sinister gang of young communists.

The plot - a series of short, choppy scenes - does not find its roots in reality. In fact, the audience is never quite sure what is real and what isn't. That may be the point the playwright is trying to get across, but it's reiterated so often that its familiarity gradually sinks the play.

In Act 2, Bob is back in the United States but the paranoia hasn't left. Instead of worrying about the KGB, he frets over the CIA. Bob's college chum tries to recruit him for the organization, that lovesick Russian doctor shows up and he is harassed by government operatives who accuse him of being anti- American.

Reddin has tackled political satire before and with greater success. In "Life and Limb," his first and best play, he looked at a Korean War veteran and American society of the early and much more innocent 1950s. In "Rum and Coke," he skewered the CIA and its diasterous plan for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In "Highest Standard of Living," Reddin suggests that paranoia is the same whether the victim lives in Moscow or New York. Once that point is made, the play must depend on the playwright's jokes and the ingenuity of director Don Scardino to get things moving again. Unfortunately, many of the jokes fall flat.

Scardino may sense that, because he doesn't let his actors stop moving. He places them all over the tiny stage and adds bits of stage business that distract from the paucity of the plot.

Culp makes a fine innocent abroad but his character disintegrates in the second half when paranoia gives way to hysteria. There are some interesting cameos in the large cast.

Many actors play several roles. Among the best are Sloane Shelton as Bob's exuberant mother, who's not afraid to take a little job with the government, and James Murtaugh as an oily CIA operative determined to undermine Bob's patriotism.

Playwrights Horizons has given the play a lavish, loving production. The numerous settings by John Arnone, including a Staten Island ferry complete with a view of the Statue of Liberty, are models of ingenuity. They glide quickly into place and disappear just as fast. It's too bad the play isn't as swift or as interesting as its sets.

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