01 October 2015

'Love & Money'

September was an active theater month for me this season.  First, I saw Daniel Schwartzman’s one-act musical, A Casual Gathering, at TNC (report posted on 21 September), then I caught the Acting Company’s one-act collection of Tennessee Williams short story adaptations, Desire, at 59E59 (report dated 26 September).  Near the end of last month, my Signature Theatre Company subscription partner and I went back to the Pershing Square Signature Center for the first production in STC’s 2015-16 Residency One season, the world première of A. R. Gurney’s Love & Money

Signature’s Residency One program is an extension of its 20-year-old “one writer/one season” policy on which the company was founded, offering a one-year residency for an established playwright to provide freedom and support, including participation in all aspects of the production process, and to afford New York audiences a full experience of an accomplished artist’s body of work.  The current Residency One playwrights are Gurney and Naomi Wallace, whose Night Is a Room, which I’ll be seeing on 4 December, will be her third STC production.  Love & Money, a co-production with the Westport Country Playhouse in Fairfield County, Connecticut, is Gurney’s third and final Residency One production.  Under the direction of Gurney’s longtime collaborator, Mark Lamos (this is their seventh joint production), L&M opened for previews at STC on 15 August and had its press opening on 24 August; the play’s original closing date was 27 September, but it has been extended until 4 October.  (The current production opened at Westport, where Lamos is artistic director, on 21 July and ran there until 8 August.  The same cast as STC’s played the roles.)  Diana and I attended the 7:30 performance of Gurney’s new comedy in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, STC’s 191-seat proscenium house, on the evening of Wednesday, 23 September. 

Gurney, whom Signature has dubbed “America’s leading chronicler of New England’s WASP establishment,” said he “wanted to say goodbye to that culture,” which he acknowledged he “had established a reputation to talk about.”  The 84-year-old playwright continued, “I wanted that culture in a sense to say goodbye to itself because I think it’s over.  I wanted to write a play which dealt with that.”  The play’s title, Gurney says, came from the common expression “You can’t get that for love or money,” except that the phrase “would be Love & Money, not Love or Money, ’cause the play isn’t about the combat between feelings and money, it’s all mixed up together: what money does to love and all the rest.”

Love & Money, a comic portrayal of the trials of class, family, legacy, and race, is about WASPs and money.  That’s not just me saying that—Gurney says it in the play.  In L&M,  wealthy widow Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) has led a life of grace and privilege on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—and she’s atoning for it as fast as she can.  Wealth, you see, is “evil” according to Cornelia’s philosophy of life and she’s “committed the major crime of having too much money.”  Determined to donate almost everything she owns to charity before the end—everything in the townhouse is labeled with color-coded tags indicating where each leather-bound book, gilt-framed painting, antique piece of furniture is to go when the movers show up—Cornelia’s plans are cast into doubt when her estate attorney, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik), arrives at the Cunningham brownstone to produce a letter ostensibly from a grandson she never knew she had—the lovechild of her late daughter and an African-American married man in Buffalo.  Sure enough, an ambitious and ingratiating young man who calls himself Scott (for F. Scott Fitzgerald; played by Gabriel Brown), soon arrives to claim his share of the family inheritance.  No one except Cornelia (she asks everyone to call her that), seems to spot a phony immediately: Harvey’s suspicious because his interest is in protecting the estate and honoring Cornelia’s wishes; Agnes Munger (Pamela Dunlap), Corneilia’s stalwart and loyal housekeeper and companion, distrusts him because she takes an instant dislike to the interloper.  But Cornelia seems taken with the brash fellow and they chat away animatedly while the others fume and fulminate.  The grande dame, though, continues with her plan to give away all her possessions—her other grandchildren and only heirs (her son is also deceased) have been given enough money to get on and have signed off on Cornelia’s decision—and while Scott’s in the house, a young acting student comes to look at the piano—a player with a penchant for Cole Porter—the old lady’s giving to Juilliard’s drama school.  Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim) is intrigued by Scott’s assertiveness and glib charm—a circumstance which will come into play at the end of the story. 

I won’t reveal the exact ending, but Gurney throws out a slight surprise at the conclusion of Scott’s stay after Cornelia has made the most of his visit and fed him a gourmet luncheon.  The play’s almost entirely filled with badinage (a word Cornelia introduces to Scott), most of it about someone’s background and history (including Scott’s, whether or not it’s factual), even the interlude with Jessica, the acting student, whose scene seems almost irrelevant except that it gives Gurney a chance to insert a player piano for the fun of it (this is my second play this season that featured a player piano: there was one in Annie Baker’s John, on which I blogged on 1 September) and get many of the characters—Cordelia, Jessica, Scott, and even Harvey—to sing Porter songs.  (Gurney pronounces the composer “a poet of WASP culture,” whose music,  the dramatist asserts, “best illustrates both the wit and the cleverness of the WASP culture, but also its dissolute quality.”)  Cordelia also reveals many truths she’s learned about WASPs and wealth which are the root justification for her decision to give everything away. 

(By the way, except for mentions as part of Scott’s back story, the character’s race is treated as irrelevant in L&M.  In an interview, Gurney made clear he wrote the part for a black actor, but the few references to his race are just to explain how WASP Cornelia could have an African-American grandson.  There’s absolutely no mention of Jessica’s being Asian, so I believe that casting was director Lamos’s choice, not Gurney’s.  Since no substantive reference is made to either character’s ethnicity, I’m left with the conclusion that race prejudice, at least, is not one of Cornelia’s WASP stereotypes.  According to an interview with the playwright, this was not an accident or an oversight; during rehearsals, he continuously asked Brown, “Is this racist?  Does this offend you in any way?”) 

In Gurney’s words, Love & Money is “about a woman of a certain age who feels guilty about the money she married and inherited but didn’t earn, and gives as much as she can away to people who need it more than she does, and the consequences of that giving for her and her family.”  Gurney’s premise is that if you have enough money, you can make happen anything you want.  (One example in the play is the idea that Cornelia can buy someone a spot at Yale or Juilliard Drama if she throws enough money at them.  That actually incenses me.)  Let’s hope fervently that the playwright’s wrong—or else we’ll be ringing in 2017 with the inauguration of Pres. Donald Trump!  Now, there’s a frightening prospect if there ever was one.

Diana was very disappointed in L&M, but I have to report that this was the best Gurney I’ve seen, except Sylvia (which I saw in January 1996 on Theatre Row; a revival starts previews at Broadway’s Cort Theatre on 2 October and opens on the 27th).  That’s not praise, however, just less displeasure than the last times I saw a Gurney play.  (There are reports on ROT concerning Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn, 1 October 2014; a 2008 production of Buffalo Gal, 26 October 2014; and What I Did Last Summer, 28 June 2015.) 

L&M actually starts off promisingly, but quickly shows itself to be contrived and artificial.  One whole character is lifted intact from John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.  (Just to be sure we see this—I did in short order and even said so to Diana—Gurney puts in a line about the play “where a young man pretends to be the son of Sidney Poitier.”)  When she first appears, Cornelia seems like a fun character, stubborn, independent, living according to her own lights, and not particularly concerned about how anyone else sees her.  But not long into the script, she becomes repetitive and predictable and her forceful personality begins to pall.  The character of Scott is a cliché for this kind of tale to begin with, but the story Gurney devises for him to sell smashes all credibility.  (I began thinking, Why not just test Scott’s DNA—or at least threaten to?)  Even Gurney’s surprise ending is only a surprise in its final detail—the one that riled me—principally because it doesn’t really suit the play; the overall dénouement is predictable because L&M just wouldn’t have supported the alternatives.  The rest of the characters all seem pat and loaded with traits tailor-made to fit into Gurney’s script like pieces in a child’s puzzle.  Agnes is kind of fun, I wish she had more to do with the outcome of the plot; as it is she’s ornamental.  And the whole sequence with Jessica, as I said, seems altogether purposeless, a diversion to liven things up. 

The performances are mostly fine, except that the manufactured set-up makes it hard for the actors to make everything they’re called on to say believable.  (Besides Six Degrees, Gurney must also have been channeling the 1956 film Anastasia.)  I think he thought he was turning the cliché on its head somehow—by sort of acknowledging it and then making everybody become friends in the end.  Yeah, like that would ever happen!

Maureen Anderman and Pamela Dunlap are both longtime stage vets and would have difficulty presenting uninteresting characters on stage and the roles of Cornelia and Agnes are right in their wheelhouses.  In fact, Dunlap’s Agnes is the liveliest and most enjoyable thing on the Griffin stage (except maybe the player piano programmed to play Cole Porter), even if her role is a stock character: the no-nonsense servant who’s more in charge of her mistress than the other way around.  (Four hundred years ago, Molière dined out on just that set-up.)  Nonetheless, both Dunlap and Anderman were pleasures to watch, even if what was going on around them was stale and trite.  (Good acting is its own reward.)

Joe Paulik and Kahyun Kim didn’t break out of their stereotypes—not that they had much real opportunity.  Paulik’s Harvey, the Wall Street estate lawyer, couldn’t have been more of a cliché if he’d come out of a 1960 TV melodrama—except that, like everyone else (apparently including A. R. Gurney), he loves Porter.  (I didn’t think of Harvey as a WASP—his family’s from Latvia, not Long Island or Westchester, but I guess love of Cole Porter isn’t exclusive to WASPs.  Hey, I like him, too!)  Kim’s Jessica is a little more quirky, but she has but one scene to bust out, and that’s just not enough time.  As well as Kim does with the role, it’s really a cameo. 

Finally, I have to talk about Gabriel Brown’s Walker “Scott” Williams.  I may not be able to put my finger on what bothered me about Brown’s performance, but theres something off.  One thing, I think, is that he seems too young for the part.  Brown looks like a 19- or 20-year-old and has the lanky, loose-jointed physicality of an adolescent, but “Scott” should be older to be the son of Cornelia’s late daughter.  In his suit, tie, and hat, he looks like a kid dressed up in his older brother’s clothes.  Part of this impression may come from Brown’s over-eagerness in the role—like a rambunctious, over-sized puppy.  Besides, if we’re not supposed to guess that he’s a scammer but merely wonder, his enthusiasm for the circumstances in which he finds himself made me believe from the start that he’s a fake.  (Paul in Six Degrees—James McDaniel when I saw it—had much more heft both as a character and as an actor.)  If Gurney intended any suspense for Love & Money, Brown’s acting approach gives the game away as soon as he enters.  (The writer didn’t help a lot by providing Scott with the answers to all the questions that come up about him—as if he’d prepared for all potentialities.)

Mark Lamos doesn’t solve any of the problems the cast lays bare, whether of Gurney’s making or the actors’.  In particular, he doesn’t heal the rift between Anderman’s Cornelia and Brown’s Scott, a putative attraction which never gels.  There has to be something in Scott that tugs at Cornelia, but neither performer finds it—and Lamos doesn’t lead the actors to it.  In fact, Lamos doesn’t go very deeply below the play’s surface with any of the characters, leaving the actors with a shallow foundation.  (This is most damagingly true of Brown whose superficial charm, which can convincingly take in Jessica, isn’t sufficiently deep to work on Cornelia.)  The director does, however, keep the characters from becoming caricatures—though not stereotypes.  It’s hard to blame Lamos entirely for the believability problem, though, since the playwright gave him (and the actors) so little of substance with which to work.  In the end, the play is largely substance-free—and so is the production.

The physical production is fine—as it usually is at STC.  Michael Yeargan’s design for Corneilia’s brownstone study evokes the old-money elegance of an Upper East Side home.  (Yeargan also designed the set for STC’s revival of Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer.)  It gives nothing about the residents away except their wealth.  (Even the quirky player piano isn’t revealing until you know what it can do.)  The color-coded tags hanging all over the room might be a clue to something—but only if you know what they are.  Jess Goldstein’s costumes made everyone’s status and role immediately clear: Cornelia’s understated but high-quality stylishness, Harvey’s conservative Wall Street spiffiness, Jessica’s boho chic, and so on.  (Goldstein was also responsible for the garments of Broadway’s On the Town and Newsies, on which I reported on 18 July 2015 and 26 February 2014, respectively.)  The lighting by Stephen Strawbridge (STC’s première of The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, reported on ROT on 3 July) kept it all together effectively, while the sound design of John Gromada (Desire; The Orphans’ Home Cycle, reported on ROT on 25 and 28 February 2010; and Donald Margulies’s Shipwrecked!  at Primary Stages, which predates the blog), which was principally the player’s Porter medley, speaks for itself. 

In a sense, Diana and I had been spoiled by seeing Desire less than a week earlier.  As I said to Diana several times when she kvelled about the Williams adaptations: When you start with Tennessee Williams, even filtered through another writer’s artistry, you have a big leg up.  Even his excesses can be wonderful in their own ways.  So now let’s see what the published reviewers had to say.  (I’m not going to report the press reception of the Westport run, but there are quite a few on line for any ROTter who’s curious.)

Love & Money is an “unfocused and unfunny comedy” which “has none of the wit, insight and clarity of Gurney’s better works,” declared Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News.  “Unbelievable characters and an unclear message about class, culture and legacies are major liabilities,” Dziemianowicz explained, adding that “the play lurches toward a conclusion” and, along the way, “strains patience, credulity and goodwill.”  To wrap up his opinion, the News reviewer reported, “The acting is so-so at best.  The script gives director Mark Lamos little to work with.”  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli opened her notice by warning, “‘Love & Money’ runs just 85 minutes and still seems padded.”  Gurney’s comedy, she said, “is a trifle of a show, a soufflé that collapses as soon as you start thinking about the plot’s holes.”  Lamos’s production, the Newswoman reported, “goes down easy, but it’s also nutrient-free and meandering.”

Charles Isherwood called L&M a “slender new play” in the New York Times, noting that it has a “somewhat misleadingly titled, since love makes only a glancing appearance.”  Like many of his colleagues, Isherwood mentioned Six Degrees and then added that Gurney’s script “cannot really stand comparisons to Mr. Guare’s rich and funny play,” adding, “It’s much slighter,” despite the “wit and warmth” of Gurney’s dialogue.  The Timesman complained, however, that “the play doesn’t deepen or accrue much emotional texture.”  Lamos, the Times reviewer asserted, “hasn’t elicited performances that might give the relationship between Cornelia and Walker the intriguing emotional undertow suggested in the script,” blaming both actors for not completing their characterizations.   

Brendan Lemon of the Financial Times called STC’s Love & Money an “affectionate, altogether too predictable evening,” despite the fact that it’s “directed gracefully by Mark Lamos.”  Comparing L&M with Gurney’s early writing, Lemon stated that “what was once astringent is now anodyne.”  Of the playwright’s main career focus, the FT review-writer quipped, drawing a parallel with one of the Cole Porter songs the characters sing, that “neither the song nor the set-up has much life left in it, even ironically,” and concludes, “I have loved the privileged world of A. R. Gurney, but unlike Cornelia I am not wistful about seeing it go.”  In the  Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout, calling Gurney “an in-and-out runner whose work varies widely in quality,” wrote that L&M “is light and slight, more like an extended comic sketch . . . than a full-fledged show.”  He also complained that “it’s also over-explicit in its treatment of one of his preferred themes, the devastating effects of money on the souls of those who inherit it.”  This occurs despite the staging of director Lamos, who “keeps ‘Love & Money’ moving at a gentle canter, making a point of not italicizing its self-evidently valedictory tone.”  The Wall Street Journalist concluded, “Nothing surprising comes of” Gurney’s play, “but Mr. Gurney rings his changes with smooth skill, squeezing solid chuckles out of” his dialogue.

In “Goings On About Town,” a New Yorker reviewer stated bluntly that in Love & Money, Gurney “lampoons [discontented WASPs] in an unpersuasive and unfunny bit of flimflam . . . that lacks the candor of comedy or the glee of farce.”  The review-writer concluded, “Michael Yeargan’s handsome set delights the eye; a few Cole Porter songs divert the ear.  But nothing can distract from the thinness of the play’s premise or the feebleness with which Gurney develops and resolves it, squandering his own rich inheritance.”  Time Out New York’s Helen Shaw dubbed L&M “Gurney’s dead-behind-the-eyes comedy” and observed that Signature’s choice of the dramatist for its Residency One program had a “downside”: “asking him for a world premiere seems to have caught him uninspired,” adding, “The play fills out the season, but no more.”  “Gurney’s recipe,” asserted the TONY reviewer, “is three parts exposition to one part pandering wheezes about Wall Street and Buffalo.”  Shaw concluded that “the brief piece doesn’t bother to develop the theme” of “egalitarianism” she saw developing toward the end, interpreting this as “a sure sign of a play written for a reason other than love,” intimating that fulfilling the STC commission was what had motivated Gurney. 

On New York Theatre Guide, Tulis McCall opened her notice with a single word: “Sophomoric.”  Love & Money, which McCall later dubbed a “flimsy tale” filled with “meaningless conversation,” “has so many holes in the plot that it seems more like a frivolous writing exercise created on a rainy afternoon than anything that should be taken seriously.”  (The NYTG reviewer’s main complaint is that Cornelia’s “decision to flee the city makes no sense and therefore the story has no validity.”)  “The entire play,” wrote McCall, “is a series of moments that either contradict or do not connect to one another.”  She went on to object that “Love & Money somehow feels long and lacks the sharp, careful craftsmanship that has made even Gurney’s flimsier efforts enjoyably watchable entertainments.”  The reviewer also lambasted director Lamos for not urging the playwright to make some revisions after ”test-driving” the script in Westport and for not “draw[ing] less stereotypical performances from the actors.”  In the end, McCall concluded that Love & Money is “a too slim and underdeveloped play.”

Matthew Murray of Talkin’ Broadway called L&M “entertaining but hollow” and complained that the “stakes aren’t high enough” in Gurney’s script which “demands a more committed, robust treatment than Gurney gives it.”  Murray continued, “Without out any underlying weight, all that’s left is the froth, and there’s too much even of that.”  The TB writer acknowledged, “There’s plenty of fun to be had here,” but lamented that “none of it really coheres.”   He added, “At once overwrought and underdeveloped, the play feels like a much longer piece that’s been cut down to appetizer size.”  Murray didn’t lay all the blame for his disappointment on the playwright, however; even though he admitted that Lamos “arranged things decently,” he reported that the director “can’t overcome these basic deficiencies; his staging has the feeling of pushing pieces around without ever explaining why.”  Murray continued, “The performances have a similar feel.”  

Huffington Post’s David Finkle pronounced Love & Money “a minor trifle” that at first looks as if it’s “going to be substantive,” but then “Gurney withdraws . . . so forcibly that patrons may experience a mild form of whiplash.”  “Your enjoyment of it will hinge on how fond of trifles you are,” allowed Finkle.  “Love & Money is so mildly amusing as it passes that I’m writing this review as fast as I can so that even more of it won’t fade from my memory before I finish.”  HP’s “First Nighter” summed up by noting, that “a work with the elements of a more probing examination of the haves and the have-nots definitely dwindles into something that couldn't be more light-hearted and gay in the now nearly forgotten sense of the word.”  Finkle praised the work of all the actors, whom, he insisted, weren’t at fault for Gurney’s deficiencies, and the HP review-writer complimented Lamos for “deftly capturing Gurney’s curious mood.”  He concluded, however, that while Gurney fans might be “wowed” by Love & Money, “Others are very likely to leave their seats thinking a baffled, ‘Huh?’” 

“[W]hile certainly flawed,” said Michael Dale on Broadway World, “the lightly philosophical comedy can provide a pleasing, if not totally satisfying time.”  Despite “director Mark Lamos' agreeable production,” Dale warned, L&M’s “big reveal is more of [a] groaner than a gasper” because “the shadow of the somewhat iconic [Six Degrees] is a major drawback.”  Nonetheless, the BWW reviewer acknowledged, because of Gurney’s skill, “there's enough of his gentle, cleverness to keep the proceedings genial” for 85 minutes.  The cyber journalist lays most of the blame on one actor: “Brown is playing one of those roles where the character may or may not be putting on an acting job.  If he is, he doesn’t seem very good at it.  His Scott continually sounds scripted to say the right things to push Cornelia’s buttons.” 

“In case you wondered what A. R. Gurney’s latest work is about,” offered David Cote on NY1, the local cable news channel for Time Warner subscribers, “he kindly puts it right there in the title: Love & Money.  However, for this slight and unsatisfying comedy he might have added Tedium, Padding and Contrivance.”  The plot of L&M, said Cote, “ambles harmlessly and dully from one tepid zinger about wealth and privilege to another.”  He explained, “The main problem in this [85]-minute piece, which seems like a puffed-up sketch, is lack of plot or dynamic characters.”  Cote’s final word is an admonition to Gurney: “Forget the love and money: next time, more art.”

1 comment:

  1. Playwright A. R. Gurney died at his home in Manhattan on 13 June 2017 at the age of 86. Also a teacher and novelist, his theater career spanned from 1982 ('The Dining Room')--though he was writing plays for 20 tears before that--to the Broadway revival of 'Sylvia' in 2015. Gurney (who was inexplicably known as Pete to his friends) was the 2014-15 Residency One Playwright at the Signature Theatre Company.