September 9, 2015

"Love and Money" Isn't Nearly Rich Enough

No one is a bigger fan of Signature Theatre than I am. For 25 years now, the company has centered its seasons around the work of one playwright, providing theater lovers the rare chance to take in the full range of what some of America’s greatest living stage writers have created and offering those writers a second chance for shows that sometimes weren’t well received the first time around. 

The result has sometimes been wonderful, as happened with Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque (click here for my review of it) and A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn. But Signature also encourages the playwrights to create new works as part of the celebration of their oeuvre. And that hasn’t fared as well. 

By definition, a playwright who merits one of these tribute seasons has to have amassed a substantial body of work and that usually means the honor comes late in a career, when the best work is often behind the writer. If you look back over the years, you'll find that the majority of the commissioned plays have tended to be a parody of what once made their authors great or a misplaced attempt to look au courant.

“The work is an example of the experimental, ruminative style the dramatist has adopted of late, an approach that is by no means his most effective,” the New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote in his review of Mr. Peters' Connections, the play Arthur Miller wrote to complete his Signature season back in 1998.  And the less said the better about A Particle of Dread, Sam Shepard’s baffling riff on the Oedipus myth that fulfilled his new play obligation last season. 

Now, alas, joining that list of disappointments is Love & Money, the new Gurney play that is running at Signature's Griffin space through Oct. 4. Throughout his long career, Gurney, who will turn 85 in November, has provided a gimlet-eyed view into the angst of upper-class whites, or WASPs, as they've struggled with losing their dominant place in American culture in such fine plays as The Cocktail Hour, The Dining Room and Sylvia, which is being revived on Broadway this fall.

And as regular readers know, his play Love Letters, a sympathetic look at the privileges and burdens of that old aristocracy, reduces me (as far from a WASP as you can get) to tears almost every time I see it, which I try to do as often as I can. But I’ve been far less moved by Gurney’s more recent plays.

The Grand Manner, a memory play inspired by Gurney’s teenage encounter with the actress Katharine Cornell, got so tripped up in his desire to portray the people he once revered that he forgot to give them a plot. Meanwhile Black Tie, a wan attempt at a contemporary comedy set at the wedding between an old-school WASP and a woman of color, so lacked the courage of its premise that the bride doesn’t even make an appearance onstage.

Love & Money falls into the good-intentions-missed-opportunity category. It centers around Cornelia Cunningham, a wealthy WASP widow, whose children have died and grandchildren are estranged, freeing her to give away all of her money to worthy causes, a kind of recompense for the privilege she’s always enjoyed.

As the play opens, Cornelia is happily writing checks and bullying her straight-laced young lawyer when a young African-American man named Walker Williams arrives, claiming to be the son resulting from a secret affair between Cornelia’s deceased daughter and a black man she met during her hippie days. Scottie, as the would-be grandson calls himself, wants Cornelia to pay his way through Princeton.

Is he telling the truth?  Will she give him the money and change her will so that he’ll inherit more when she dies?  Gurney hardly seems to care. The characters—including an Irish maid and a Korean music student—come and go without any consideration for the passage of time or logic. And the resolution is abruptly announced instead of worked out. The play lasts barely 75 minutes and they are padded with the playing and singing of Cole Porter songs.

The production is directed by Mark Lamos, who has made a specialty of doing Gurney plays, but he isn’t able to do much with this one. The cast, lead by Maureen Anderman as Cornelia, runs the gamut from OK to not.

The set, supposedly a parlor in an elegant townhouse that Cornelia uses as an office is appropriately lavish-looking but so awkwardly designed that there aren’t enough places for the actors to sit or to comfortably put down their props. A piano seems to be there just so that they can perform the Porter songs.

All in all, it’s a good thing that Gurney’s legacy is so secure because otherwise, Love & Money would diminish it. Although who knows, maybe 20 years from now some Signature production will revive the show and give it the life it now lacks. In the meantime, I’m afraid it’s not deserving of your love or your money.


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