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Serious Money is Crackerjack!

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In his 1988 review of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, Mel Gussow in the New York Times wrote, “The author indicates, with malice intended, there is no end to greed.” Churchill’s vitriolic satire arrived from England on the heels of Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street and amid our own Boesky and Milliken scandals. Except for a contextual program note about Britain’s governmental policies, translation was unnecessary. PTP/NYC’s crackerjack revival of the play also requires none. Little has changed.

Like many of you, I’m not savvy about the world of stocks, trades and arbitrage. (If you are, this one’s not-to-be-missed.) Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of markets, ostensibly providing opportunities for middle class people to make serious money, was a blink on my radar. I don’t own shares or read The Wall Street Journal. When the play erupts in the 1980s, frenetic staging makes it feel as if we’re inside a pinball machine. Cocaine velocity, industry slang, and rhyming verse at first confuse. (Don’t worry, you’ll barely register the dialogue structure after awhile. When you do, it can sound like biting Gilbert & Sullivan.) Ricocheting back and forth between past and present (before and after a death) doesn’t help either. I recommend un-furrowing your brow and taking the ride. There are protagonists whom you can follow. Every facet of this über-smart play does not have to be explained in order to enjoy it. Relationships and consequences or their absence, do become clear.

Initially introduced characters include: Scilla Todd (Tara Giordano) a LIFFE Dealer (London International Financial Futures Exchange) who’s born rich but addicted to the excitement of making her own fortune, her brother Jake (Mat Nakitare) a cashmere smooth, behind the scenes enabler (seller of information), Zac Zackerman (David Barlow), an American banker who does whatever’s necessary to grease the deal “you can’t play ball and keep off the grass” and the British Billy Corman (Alex Draper) who buys companies to dismantle them but can just as easily turn a profit by causing his prey to fear a takeover and then orchestrating trading to his benefit. (Remember the Michael Douglas character?)

In no time, Jake is a suicide or murder victim. Scilla resolves to get to the bottom of the incident not out of filial loyalty but in order to acquire her sibling’s hidden assets and possibly replace him as go-between. The story then coheres around Corman’s latest acquisition deal. Financial tentacles reach from London to master American arbitrageur Marylou Baines (Megan Bryne) and to whip smart Peruvian businesswoman (from mines to dope) Jacinta Condor (Jeanne LaSala Taylor). There are “bit players” who deal in millions rather than billions, PR spinners whose dirty work you will recognize (a sex scandal is better than an economic one), aspirational assistants with one eye on lifeboats the other on brass rings, white knights whose rescues are often illusion, and representatives of the old guard who can’t seem to decide whether survival is worth being put out to pasture. Oh, and mostly impotent government officials.

Energy expelled in this production could cause a local brown out. The ensemble cast offers first rate performances, several nimbly in multiple roles.

Tara Giordana (Scilla Todd) vibrates with unbridled ambition. One believes both her naiveté and the psychological imperative that compels her. Alex Draper’s realization of Billy Corman comfortably inhabits the gray area between reptilian and seductive often commandeered by dynamic men. Megan Bryne (Marylou Baines) so viscerally presents her cocksure patrician, her speeches seem as if they might draw blood. David Barlow (Zac Zackerman) credibly offers us a banker embedded in corruption while making the position appear usual. Among these talented thespians, Jeanne LaSala Taylor (Jacinta Condor) is a standout. The actress plays negotiation scenes with the infectious glee of a born comedienne, exploits sexual allure as if it were second nature, and moves like a dancer. Additionally scenes with Taylor and Barlow epitomize the ease of Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man films.

Director Cheryl Faraone has given us a captivating production. Faraone is as skilled with a stage of controlled shenanigans as she is with eliciting individual character attributes. Scenes flow easily one to another; pacing keeps us engaged despite the length and density of the play. Tension and mockery successfully ride tandem because of a muscular overall vision that never feels one note.

Staging is inspired. A whiz-bang trading floor on which over stimulated denizens do everything but have sex between sales (men literally sniff the women), intermittently freezes or segues into slow-motion. An upper echelon house party riding to the hounds is portrayed by actors who walk and trot among one another with crusty expressions and demeanor. (David Barlow’s difficulty with his mount embodies the physical skills of a silent screen star.) Players intermittently address the audience drawing us in, yet oddly never seem to step outside the story. Senora Condor, Zac and Billy literally tango through their initial strategy meeting without missing a beat of crisp, deceptive repartee. Musical numbers punctuating the end of each act (this is not a musical) are sexy and vaudevillian, suggesting that despite depicted crises, we lighten up. An epilogue—every character announces how he or she ends up after the story—is sharp, witty, and choreographed to its best advantage.

Hallie Zieselman’s Scenic Design creates and maintains a dark canvas on which unimaginable riches might be displayed, much like a jewel case. Her champagne bottle chandeliers and low hanging phone receivers are terrific.

Jule Emerson and Jordon Ashleigh Jones have done a virtuoso job with costumes. Every class and character is accurately and attractively dressed to reflect the period as well as his or her stature. From hairstyles to braces and shoes, details are simply wonderful. The colorful trader’s coats are playful. Carol Christensen’s Musical Direction excels with incidental background tunes which persuasively illuminate the action.

Photographer Stan Barouh
1. Cast Members
2. Tara Giordano
3. Megan Byrne and Alex Draper.
4. Mat Nakitare, David Barlow, Jeanne LaSala Taylor, Alex Draper, Aubrey Dube

The Potomac Theater Project/NYC presents
Serious Money by Caryl Churchill
Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th Street (between 8th & 9th)
Through July 29, 2012

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