In 1987 the movie WALL STREET excoriated the manipulative business practices of the American stock exchange as represented by the lizard-like trader Gordon Gekko, so memorably embodied by Michael Douglas spouting lines like “When I get a hold of the son of a bitch who leaked this, I'm gonna tear his eyeballs out and I'm gonna suck his fucking skull.” Or, “one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you buddy? It's the free market. And you're a part of it. You've got that killer instinct. Stick around pal, I've still got a lot to teach you.” And, of course, “greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
Atlantic Stage II, on W. 16th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.
That same year, British playwright Caryl Churchill enjoyed success with SERIOUS MONEY, a bitingly satiric exposé of the very same kind of ruthlessness and greed within the context of the English stock market, known as the City, with a Gekko-like banker named Zac Zackerman (David Barlow) as a central figure. A hit in London, it bombed on Broadway in a production starring Alec Baldwin. Last year it was revived Off Broadway for a brief run by the Potomac Theatre Project, and now that production, ingeniously directed by Cheryl Faraone, has been brought back, with minor cast changes, in a stingingly stirring staging at Atlantic Stage II. Against the background of Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of the UK’s financial markets (an event known as the “Big Bang”), which allowed a whole new army of money obsessed troops to march in and take over, Ms. Churchill’s play, like a dramaturgical MRI, exposed their excesses and corruption. Her play may take place in the mid-1980s, but conditions since then have only worsened, so SERIOUS MONEY remains as seriously funny now as it was a quarter century ago.
Like WALL STREET, SERIOUS MONEY also has brilliant writing illuminating the financial gluttony running rampant in the English stock market following the Big Bang. Many of these are in rhymed couplets, as for example, when Zac says:
The financial world won’t be the same again
Because the traders are coming down the fast lane.
They don’t even know it themselves, they’re into fucking or getting a Porsche, getting a Porsche and a Mercedes Benz.
But you can’t drive two cars at once.
If you’re making the firm ten million you want a piece of the action.
You know you’ve got it made the day you’re offered stock options.
There are guys that blow out, sure, stick too much whitener up their nose.
Guy over forty’s got any sense he takes his golden handshake and goes.
Because the new guys are hungrier and hornier.
They’re Jews from the Bronx and spivs from South California.
It’s like, Darwin says, survival of the fit.
Now, here in England, it’s just beginning to hit.
The plot is built around an upper-class woman named Scilla Todd (Tara Giordano) whose brother, Jake (a fine Mathew Nakitare), dies under mysterious circumstances. Unsatisfied with the conclusion that it was suicide, she is convinced he was murdered because of his shady dealings in the market, and, partly because there may be serious money in it for her, she determines to get to the truth of the matter. This brings her into the web of all-American arbitrageur Marylou Baines (an excellent Megan Byrne, who also plays a supposedly ethical British stockbroker) and her sycophantic personal assistant, T.K. (Noah Berman). Meanwhile, another plot line concerns the efforts of Zac and corporate raider Billy Corman (Alex Draper) to take control of a company called Albion, with various complications introduced by a sexpot Peruvian businesswoman named Jacinta Condor (marvelously limned by Jeanne LaSala Taylor) and her Nigerian associate, Nigel Abjibala (Aubrey Dube), purportedly a trader in cocoa.
Everything is played at a frenetic pace, with plot complications piled on one another as the action shifts instantaneously from locale to locale, and backward and forward in time, usually with Zac informing the audience in direct address of where the story is going. Helping to move the episodically structured piece along is a spare set consisting of little more than an occasional piece of furniture, with four unusual chandeliers created out of upside down champagne bottles at each corner of the space. Telephones attached to long cords are pulled out of various unexpected places, sometimes creating a web-like environment when numerous phones are in action (this was in the pre-cell phone days). Countless lighting cues keep altering the look of the space, and every bit of movement is carefully staged by Ms. Faraone in a nonstop parade of directorial creativity. Expansive musical numbers, “The Futures Song” and “Five More Years,” conclude each act of this two-hour and ten minute show, with the entire cast dancing and singing to raucous music played by an upstage pianist revealed when a curtain parts. And there is even a prologue taken by Churchill directly from Thomas Shadwell’s THE VOLUNTEERS, OR STOCKJOBBERS, a remarkably prescient play about the London stock market written in 1693.
Enormous credit must go to the wonderful ensemble of actors, some of those in minor roles being students at Middlebury College, with which the PTP is closely associated. David Barlow, so vivid as Stucley in THE CASTLE: A TRIUMPH, which is playing in repertory with SERIOUS MONEY, does another bang-up job as Zac, the driven American banker. In THE CASTLE he has a very authentic British accent, but here is every inch the American mover and shaker, although his New York accent is sometimes tinged with a middle-American sound. The British accents of the entire cast, in fact, seem remarkably well honed, regardless of which regional characteristics are on display. Tara Giordano’s Scilla is another memorable performance, as is Alex Draper’s, who plays both the dynamic Billy Corman and a more restrained jobber named Frosby. He was not the only actor whose transformation from one role to another (many play multiple roles) was unusually deft. I still am not sure how he managed to make himself look nearly bald in one scene and to have a slicked down head of hair a moment later; if he used a wig, it fooled me.
The theatre’s A/C was not working last night, which was horribly humid. I’m a great shvitzer, so if I had found myself too uncomfortable while watching a mediocre show I wouldn’t have hesitated to leave at intermission. That I didn’t means that, with SERIOUS MONEY, some serious theatre (which includes being funny, of course) is going on down in the depths of Atlantic Stage II (four floors below ground).