Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Perishable Theatre's "Bad Money"

I don’t want to be presumptuous, but it seems likely that Bad Money, currently enjoying its world premiere at Perishable Theatre, is the funniest play about currency depreciation you will see all year. In a dissipated former Soviet state, the local currency, known simply as the Purple, might best be understood as a vast ocean, swelling and receding in response to invisible, indomitable forces; Agnetta, our hero, not only floats on these waves but can also predict them. Blessed, or cursed, with a nose for monetary fluctuation, Agnetta returns to her Motherland after several years away—called, perhaps, by the strange scent of the Purple. She has, in fact, returned as an investment banker, and her first client is Mansur, a “small-time potatoes” restaurateur who hopes to buy a vast oil field with his identical twin cousins (from different sides of the family), Magsud and Mahmud. Agnetta’s colleague Joe, as charming and steadfast as a balsa wood bridge, scoots around the office on his three-wheeled chair and neglects to give Agnetta flowers for Women’s Day—even though he has given the surly secretary, Gulnara, a flamboyant bouquet. And drifting at the play’s periphery like a ghost is Agnetta’s Auntie, who has not forgiven a terrible treachery perpetrated by an unwitting Agnetta decades before and which she threatens to replicate as an adult.

Bad Money is by Meg Miroshnik, who has a winningly whimsical take on post-Communism: think of it as Agnetta in Wonderland. Avarice has not produced violent gangs, and old resentments have not been channeled into neo-Stalinism; instead, greed has created extravagant rascals—Mansur, in orange-tinted sunglasses and a matching leather jacket, throws his arms back and exclaims, “I am ambition!”—and the cultural divide is not between apparatchik and dissidents but between those who get it and those who don’t. So there is a melancholy to the play but no real menace. Contributing to the moon-bounce mood of the show is Sara Ossana’s set, which is simple and ingenious: a single backdrop of blown-up bills, printed on a huge wall of foam board into which are cut doors and windows. What this lacks in impact—doors closed violently shut with an emasculating breeze—it makes up for in depth and adaptability. It’s a constant reminder of the characters' obsession with cash, but it also works practically: one never wonders why an investment banking office, a chain restaurant called Fat Belly’s, and an old widow’s apartment should all have money-themed wallpaper. That this set works is one of the mysteries of theatre.

If the show’s set and staging, which is equally fluid and flexible, operate subliminally, the acting is decidedly supraliminal. Beth Alianiello is drier than day-old rye bread as a number of characters in the service industry, Jo-án Peralta, as both Magsud and Mahmud (distinguished only by the inverted crescent of their mustaches), is limber and ludicrous, and Josh Short plays Joe with a brittle charm and perfect timing. But it is Alexander Platt as Mansur and Patricia Thomas as Aunti who steal the show. Platt’s Mansur is all brio and Borat, and Thomas’s Auntie, addled but resilient, evokes the play’s only real human feeling. It is feeling, real or otherwise, that is missing from Nicole Soras’s portrayal of Agnetta. As she follows her nose through the stink of oil fields and rotting money, we hope for something more from her: a sign of anguish, or rapacity; some kind of heightened emotional state; or something like irony. We lose interest in the show when Auntie and Mansur are offstage, because Agnetta, as written or performed, seems so vaporous. She is the chaste center of the show, so she needs to attract or repel the audience, but in the end, we don’t know if we are supposed to fear or pity her. I left with a vague sense of affinity, but I also left wanting to know more about the further adventures of Auntie and Mansur.

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