Sunday, July 15, 2012

Off Broadway: Serious Money

Cast members of Serious Money.  Photo by Stan Barouh.
You don’t have to be a supporter of “Occupy Wall Street” (Lord knows, I’m certainly not!) to enjoy PTP/NYC’s rollicking revival of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money at Atlantic Stage 2 on West 16th Street.  Originally written in 1987, this scathing indictment of Wall Street focuses on the consequences of the transfer of power that was taking place from genteel establishment investment bankers to street smart uncultured traders.  Insider trading, risk arbitrage, leveraged buyouts, sexual indiscretions, drug abuse, and government complicity - all were emblematic of the greed and amorality that imbued the financial world of that time.  And not only were prominent risk arbitrageurs and junk bond specialists like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken singled out as prime offenders, but such a political icon as Margaret Thatcher was pilloried as well for having facilitated the devolution of the financial community through her excessive deregulation (what came to be known as the “Big Bang” in London).

The play’s plot revolves around the death of Jake Todd (Mat Nakitare), a young aggressive trader on LIFFE (the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange) who is intimately involved in the dissemination of inside information.  His sister, Scilla (Tara Giordano), who is also a LIFFE trader is convinced that he has been murdered and sets out to find his killer, not so much to seek justice for her slain brother as to recover for herself the ill-gotten gains she assumes he has stashed away somewhere.  In the course of her investigations, she becomes involved with a number of unsavory characters including Marylou Baines (Megan Byrne), an American arbitrageur who has been the recipient of Jake’s tips and T.K. (Aubrey Dube), Marylou’s personal assistant who is no more scrupulous than his boss.

Concurrently, Billy Corman (Alex Draper), a corporate raider, is seeking to seize control of Albion, a stodgy old-line company run by Duckett (also played by Mat Nakitare).  In this effort, he enlists the aid of Zak Zackerman (David Barlow), an American banker.  Duckett responds, of course, and seeks the aid of Ms. Biddulph (Molly O’Keefe) as a “white knight.”  Others become involved, on one side or the other and often on both, including Marylou Baines; Jacinta Condor (Jeanne LaSala Taylor), a totally amoral Peruvian businesswoman; and Nigel Abjibala (also played by Aubrey Dube), an importer from Ghana.  The plots thicken and intertwine.  Betrayals, double crosses, and triple crosses abound.

The play has been written largely in rhyming couplets and is performed in a rapid-fire frenetic manner.  Imagine a Restoration comedy written by Bertolt Brecht and you’ll get the idea.

The original play was clearly intended as a leftist political attack, not only on the greed and amorality of the financial community but also on their enablers and cronies, right wing politicians, exemplified by Margaret Thatcher and the Tories in Great Britain and by conservative Republicans in the United States.  But, amazingly, the play works just as well today, a quarter century after it was written, if one just allows for the introduction of a batch of newfangled investment instruments like monetized sub-prime mortgages, derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, et al., and interest rate manipulation occurring in conjunction with stock market manipulation.

Only one further adjustment must be made to bring everything up to date: notwithstanding the overt biases of the “Occupy Wall Streeters,” government enabling and cronyism must be recognized as having become bi-partisan.  It’s no longer just conservative Republicans who must accept the blame for allowing (or, indeed, even encouraging) the financial disasters that have come to pass.  Liberal Democrats like Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (who knowingly failed to intervene in Barclay’s interest rate scandal), Jon Corzine (the former Democratic Governor and Senator from New Jersey who presided over the collapse of MF Global), Maxine Waters (the Democratic Representative from California under investigation for ethics violations, having been accused of steering $12 million in TARP funds to a bank with ties to her husband), Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (co-sponsor of the Dodd-Frank bill, who received special treatment on his own mortgages from Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide Financial), et al.  (This is not to suggest that liberal Democrats have now supplanted conservative Republicans in the rogue’s gallery of financial miscreants; nope, there’s still room enough there for all of them.)

When Serious Money was first produced in London in 1987, it was a big hit, and when it came to the Public Theater in New York in 1988, it was an off Broadway hit there as well.  But when it then moved to Broadway, it fell flat, closing after only two weeks – which may go a long way toward explaining why it’s taken so long for a full-fledged off Broadway revival of the play to have been launched in New York.

But it’s here now and we’re certainly glad it is.  Not only is the timing perfect, given the economic and financial state of the world today, but this production, in particular, is terrific.  The entire cast is superb but I would especially single out David Barlow as Zak Zackerberg, Tara Giordano as Scilla Todd, Alex Draper as Billy Corman, and Jeanne LaSala Taylor as Jacinta Condor for rave reviews.  Try not to miss it (no matter what your politics).

Friday, July 13, 2012

Off Broadway: Nymph Errant

Andrew Brewer, Amy Jo Jackson, Aubrey Sinn, Sorab Wadia and Laura Cook in NYMPH ERRANT.  Photo by Lee Wexler, Images for Innovation
Near the end of what is generally considered to be Cole Porter’s sexiest and most sophisticated show, Nymph Errant, currently being revived by the Prospect Theater Company at the Clurman Theatre on West 42nd Street, Evangeline (Jennifer Blood) describes the provenance of the plumber’s jacket she is wearing (and, in the process, recaps the entire show up to that point) by declaring:

"It was given to me by an American who liberated me from a Turkish harem after I was sold into white slavery when a Greek carpet merchant was killed in a war to whom I had been bequeathed by an Italian Count who rescued me from a predatory German nudist who saved me from starving to death with a suicidal Russian who brought me to Paris when Andre abandoned me…..”

Sounds pretty exciting and entertaining, right?

It isn’t.

To be sure, Nymph Errant does address such taboo subjects (at least taboo by the standards of 1933 when the show was first produced in London) as prostitution, lesbianism, nudity, white slavery, and sexual experimentation.  But it requires more than just a sexy or sophisticated theme to make for a good show. It also requires an interesting plot (without which you don’t have a play but a revue), and the adventures of Evangeline, an innocent graduate of a Swiss finishing school seeking to lose her virginity, are no more interesting than are the perils of Pauline.  Too, it requires at least a modicum of character development, surely more than the two dimensional caricatures provided here.  And it requires a combination of a hummable, if not memorable, score and some catchy or creative lyrics which, despite Cole Porter’s claim that this was his best score (by which he may simply have meant that it was his sexiest) the lyrics and score of Nymph Errant really don’t hold a candle to such Porter classics as Anything Goes, Can Can, or Kiss Me Kate.  Indeed, I believe it was the weakness of Nymph Errant’s original music and lyrics which prompted the producers of this show to interpolate four songs from other Porter works – Red, Hot and Blue from Red, Hot and Blue, Dizzy Baby from Paris, and The Boyfriend Back Home and Paree, What Did You Do to Me from Fifty Million Frenchmen into this show; they were certainly right to have done so since those four songs clearly are among the best musical numbers of the current production.

In other words, I really don’t think much of the original show itself and I can readily understand why it never made it to Broadway, why it took 50 years for it to make it to the United States at all (it received its off Broadway premiere in New York in 1982) and why it has been revived so infrequently ever since.  It is just not a very good show; certainly not up to the standards of so much else of Cole Porter’s work.

But having declared my disappointment in the original show, what is to be said of the cast of this particular production?  Well, that is a wholly different matter: in short, this cast is terrific and they are not at all to be blamed for any shortcomings in the material they have been given to work with.

Jennifer Blood, who reminded me a bit of Sarah Jessica Parker, sings beautifully and plays the role she has been given with an infectious innocence.  Aubrey Sinn as Madeline (the sexy French girl), Laura Cook as Pidge (the Italian go-getter), Amy Jo Jackson as Bertha (the German lesbian sports enthusiast), and Sara Jane Blackmore as Henrietta (the American girl next door from Yonkers) were wonderful in their roles as Evangeline’s finishing school classmates whose post-graduation paths coincidentally intersect with hers time after time.  And their voices were magnificent; in fact, I thought that the diminutive Sara Jane Blackman’s rendition of The Boyfriend Back Home was the high point of the show.

Abe Goldfarb and Sorab Wadia deserve considerable praise too for their portrayals of the eight different characters (Pithers, Alexei, Ferdinand, Vassim, Andre, Heinz, Constantine, and Ali) who played such important and disparate roles in Evangeline’s quest to rid herself of her innocence (though if truth be told the distinctions among them were sometimes difficult to discern).  And mention must be made of Natalie E. Carter, the one black member of the cast who didn’t let that minor quirk of melanin prevent her from being sold into white slavery as Haidee or of portraying Evangeline’s Aunt Ermyntrude.  And she sure could belt out a song!

So there you have it.  Nymph Errant may not be much of a play per se but this production does allow a number of very talented actors to take star turns singing several of Cole Porter’s lesser tunes and a few of his better ones.  And for many of you, that may just be enough.    

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Off Off Broadway: An Ideal Husband

Whitney Kaufman as Lady Gertrude Chiltern, Aaron Gaines as Sir Robert Chiltern, and Stuart Williams as Lord Arthur Goring.  Photo by Christopher Thompson.
We haven’t been to the theatre much recently, what with our trip to the Galapagos and other distractions, but now that we’ve settled back into our lives in New York, we’ve resumed our theatergoing with a vengeance.  And we’ve gotten off to a great start with Sink or Swim Rep’s splendid revival of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, running through July at the Connelly Theater on East 4th Street.  This is one of Wilde’s most epigrammatic and entertaining works, reflective of the difficulties he was encountering in his own life at the time of its creation in the 1890s and scathing in its indictment of Victorian hypocrisy.  And this production – from the sets to the costumes, from the direction to the casting, and especially the performances – more than does it justice.

When Mrs. Cheveley (Amanda Jones) unexpectedly arrives at a dinner party at the Grosvenor Square home of Sir Robert Chiltern (Aaron Gaines) and his wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Whitney Kaufman) in London in 1895, it is quickly apparent that her arrival bodes no good for the Chilterns. Sir Robert is now an up and coming member of the House of Commons and a seemingly “ideal husband” but once, in his foolish youth, he provided cabinet secrets to a market speculator and his recompense from that insider trading transgression gave him the seed money from which his present fortune and power have been derived.  If that youthful transgression were ever to be revealed, Sir Robert would be disgraced and his family and future would be destroyed.  And Mrs.Cheveley knows all about it, she has an incriminating letter to prove it, and she’s just the one to use it.

Mrs. Cheveley is sinuously evil but she’s not dumb; she’s certainly self-interested; and she’s willing to let Sir Robert off the hook – but only for a price.  She will give him the incriminating letter and keep his secret - if he agrees to reverse his public opposition to a fraudulent scam involving the proposed building of an Argentine canal in which she has invested.  Having recognized the scam for what it is, Robert previously had made known his opposition to it but now, fearing the revelation of his past misdeed, he reluctantly agrees to Mrs. Chevely’s demand that he reverse course and endorse the project.

When the beautiful, educated, upright and elegant Lady Chiltern, an early exemplar of the Victorian “new woman,” unaware of Sir Robert’s youthful transgression and equally unaware of Mrs. Cheveley’s blackmail attempt, learns of Robert’s intention to speak in favor of the project in the House of Commons, she is stunned and outraged.  A woman of great propriety, she prevails on Sir Robert to reverse course yet again, to do the right thing, and to oppose the scam publicly.

On the horns of a dilemma, Sir Robert seeks guidance and assistance from his best friend, Viscount Arthur Goring (Stuart Williams), a dandyish, thirtyish, hedonistic ne’er-do-well whose character (other than his heterosexuality) is clearly based on that of Wilde himself.  (At the time of his writing this play, Wilde was himself fearful of exposure as an active homosexual and his rendition of Arthur may reflect that fear: it may go a long way toward explaining why Arthur is portrayed as the most understanding of the characters in the play, the one who is most sensitive to human weakness, the one who is least judgmental, the one who most believes in forgiveness for past sins, and the one who is most aware of and the most critical of Victorian hypocrisy, posturing and moral inflexibility.)  Arthur does come to Sir Robert’s aid, in more ways than one.

The resolution of Sir Robert’s predicament is complex, convoluted and great fun.  Along the way, we are constantly reminded that all is not black and white, that perhaps being the “ideal husband” (or the “ideal” anything for that matter) may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and that, perhaps, we all should be slower to judge and quicker to forgive.

The play’s principal actors – Aaron Gaines as Sir Robert Chilton, Whitney Kaufman as Lady Gertrude Chilton, Amanda Jones as Mrs. Cheveley, and Stuart Williams as Viscount Arthur Goring – are all perfectly cast and play their roles brilliantly.  But some of the other supporting actors deserve mention as well:  In particular, I would credit Peter Judd for his performance as Arthur’s father, the stuffy, hidebound Earl of Caversham; Jade Anderson for her portrayal of Mabel Chilton, Sir Robert’s more traditional sister who comes across as an amusing counterpoint to Robert’s more liberated wife, Gertrude; Emily Jon Mitchell, Rachel Niehiesel and Clemmie Evans for their wonderful Victorian caricatures of Lady Markby, Mrs. Marchmont and the Countess of Basildon, respectively; and Craig Mungavin in his perfunctory no nonsense role as Phipps, the minimalist butler.

If you see this production, and I hope you will, be forewarned: there is much that is politically incorrect about it, not least of which its overt sexism.  While the Earl of Caversham, for instance, eventually does admit that Mabel exhibits “a good deal of common sense,” that must be understood within the context of his earlier declaration that “Common sense is the privilege of our sex.”  And Arthur Goring’s claim that “A man’s life is of more value than a woman’s” is readily embraced by all – including Gertrude Chiltern, herself.

But that sexism was truly reflective of the times – the play, after all, was written in the 1890s – and Sink or Swim Rep is to be commended for not attempting to paper it over and for mounting a fine and honest production that is true to Wilde’s original intent.