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Tony-winning director Doug Hughes embraces the moral quandaries in Dan Cody's Yacht
Director Doug Hughes vividly remembers the day he met playwright Anthony Giardina. A blizzard was swirling outside and Hughes, then a young associate artistic director for Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC), was at home reading scripts when he came across Giardina's The Child, about a couple trying to decide whether to have an abortion. It so impressed Hughes that he called up Giardina to introduce himself, and then walked seven blocks in the snow to the dramatist's apartment to discuss the work. That chat launched a three-decades-long friendship with their latest collaboration, Dan Cody's Yacht, currently running at MTC Stage I at City Center.
With a title inspired by an incident in The Great Gatsby, the play takes on the hot-button issues of income inequality, social mobility and disparities in public education as a rich financial wiz named Kevin (Rick Holmes) and a struggling teacher named Cara (Kristen Bush) butt heads over a plan to merge two Massachusetts school districts. Cara teaches English at the wealthy public high school that Kevin's son attends while her own daughter languishes in a poorly funded one. There might be ways they could help each other, but what would they have to give up?
"These are big themes but Tony manages to set them in play dramatically on a very human scale," says Hughes. "He has a knack for putting characters in an impossible situation. He takes them to places where there is no way out but for some sacrifice, some loss. There is going to be blood on the floor, speaking metaphorically, before the conflict can be resolved."
It's the kind of dramatic showdown that appeals to Hughes, 62, the son of late actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg. The director earned his own professional stripes working Off-Broadway and at regional theatres across the country, including Seattle Repertory Theatre, Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater and the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, where he served as artistic director from 1997 to 2001.
Theatrically ambidextrous, Hughes is equally adept at helming revivals (2007's Inherit the Wind, 2011's Born Yesterday) and new works, including current Tony nominee Junk and the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt, for which he won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Director of a Play. "I like to think of myself as a food-from-all-the lands guy," Hughes says.
Yet he's particularly invested in Dan Cody's Yacht since he originally commissioned it back in 2014, while serving as a consultant for MTC. He and Giardina had just finished collaborating on City of Conversation at Lincoln Center Theater, and Hughes wanted to encourage his friend to start on something new. No specific topics or themes were discussed. "Commissions work best when there is the least interference from the people who commission it," explains Hughes. "I think a writer should follow his or her own nose."
When the director read the first draft of Dan Cody's Yacht, he knew his instincts had been correct. "I thought this is a play about something that's really troubling the sleep of America," he says. "It's elegant, it's focused, it's funny and it's bold. Who wouldn't want to spend time with it? I felt lucky."
The play evolved during a series of readings and workshops, including a four-day stint at the Chautauqua Institution, an artistic and educational community in western New York. Hughes suggested losing the conceit of having Kevin speak directly to the audience, and they worked on lowering the temperature for some of the confrontations, particularly those between parents and children. "Sometimes things can be far more cutting or wounding to us when those scenes are not conducted at the top of our voices," notes Hughes.
What remained constant, however, was the refusal to turn any character into a total villain. Even Kevin -- a self-made man who champions individual initiative over community uplift -- is nuanced. "The tendency is to think, okay, he's the big bad rich guy," admits Hughes. "But I think the play is far more complex than that."
Indeed, Cara discovers that she and Kevin may share similar hopes, goals and pain. "There are plenty of wounds in this play," says Hughes. "And the fact that Kevin has money hasn't successfully protected him from damage." Dan Cody's Yacht doesn't spare anyone, including the audience.
To read about a student's experience at Dan Cody's Yacht, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Janice C. Simpson writes the blog Broadway & Me.
Top image: Rick Holmes and Kristen Bush. Photos by Joan Marcus.