I Think the Eighties Are Going to Be Stupendous

“There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy.  That used to be a huge number.  But it’s only a hundred billion.  It’s less than the national deficit!  We used to call them astronomical numbers.  Now we should call them economical numbers.” – Richard Feynman

Lest we remember Caryl Churchill solely for her recent, vicious antisemitism, PTP/NYC has launched a zany production of her Thatcher-era play Serious Money to remind us of why we liked her in the first place.  Set among various financial institutions in the late ‘eighties, this play written largely in rhyming couplets is an obvious choice for revival following the collapse of the markets in 2007.  After the death of dealer Jake Todd (Mat Nakitare), his sister Scilla (Tara Giordano) eschews mourning and instead searches for his killer and, more importantly, his money.  Meanwhile, Billy Corman (Alex Draper), a staunch Conservative and corporate raider nicknamed “William the Conqueror” tries to illegally take over the Albion Corporation with the help of his Jewish-American banker from Klein Merrick, Zac Zackerman (David Barlow).

Delightfully unsubtle and unequivocally one-sided, Serious Money has lost most its sting but none of its sense of fun.  These kinds of scenarios have had varied success in the theater (Lucy Prebble’s underappreciated ENRON, David Hare’s overrated The Power of Yes), but what distinguishes Ms. Churchill’s play is its giddiness.  She never really attempts to explain anything (even Nobel Prize-winning economists struggle to do that), but spends most of her time cynically smirking at the outrageousness of these enterprises.  The first act ends with a jazzy, spoken word song about futures and contains the refrain, “Money-making money-making money-making caper / Do the fucking business do the fucking business do the fucking business.”  What is lacking in nuance is made up for in theatrical inventiveness: the singing traders, wearing gaudy, neon jackets, bear a beaming resemblance to the Catholic Church fashion show in Fellini’s Roma and not only because, for both, money is religion and religion is money.

To be fair, there are quieter moments, too.  Amid the rhyming and dancing, Ms. Churchill does take note that a new social stratum is emerging, one based on merit and not heritage, but one that nonetheless takes its ethical cues from the ruling class.  Durkfeld (Jay Dunn), a trader at Klein Merrick, grimly tells his boss, Merrison (Brent Langdon), “You say Henry / Where I say Kissinger,” and even alludes to complacent Jew hatred when speaking of his introduction to society: “There’s guys don’t want me in their club. / I don’t give a rat’s ass. / Those guys would have looked the other way / And let the cattle trucks pass.”  Still, this blink-and-you-miss-it Holocaust reference is followed by Durkfeld’s ruthlessness—by the end of the conversation, he has forced Merrison to resign: “You don’t seem to get it.  You’re sitting in my chair. / Walk.”

Most important to the play’s success, director Cheryl Faraone has in her hands a cast that can handle Ms. Churchill’s language with just the right amount of vulpine glee.  Deliberately awkward or archaic lines like, “The main end verily is to turn the penny in the way of stock jobbing,” or, “It’s like Darwin says, survival of the fit, / Now, here in England, it’s just beginning to hit,” are not the territory of Method actors but of old-fashioned entertainers, Joel Grey-style showmen who can wink at the audience without dragging on the momentum of the narrative.  Mr. Barlow’s Zackerman is a standout performance—he has a swaggering, confident gait and a ubiquitous close-mouthed grin; he is a survivor of the racket who sticks around to tell of us all the delicious details of what they got away with.  Ms. Giordano, too, is effective as the pseudo-gumshoe who, like Marlene in Ms. Churchill’s Top Girls, has chosen to fight the patriarchy by appropriating the most despicable behaviors of men.

And despite her unmistakable liberal affiliations, Ms. Churchill is not afraid to be seen with the smoking gun pointed at herself—after the action of the play is over, we are informed that “Lord Corman” has escaped prosecution and become chairman of the board of the National Theatre.  Even artists, who are so eager to feign purity, are in the pockets of those big nasty rich businessmen.

Overall: a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Serious Money runs through July 29th at Atlantic Stage 2.  330 W. 16th Street  New York, NY.

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Aaron Botwick

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