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).

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