Friday, April 15, 2016

Review: A Not So Progressive Rom Com

After the turn of the century, America was experiencing the prime of what was called “The Progressive Era.” It was a time of social activism and political reform where names like J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie were on the lips of Americans was the face of greed or philanthropy. It was also a time when the working class began fighting for opportunities to create their own businesses as others formed domination unions. This is the generation that is the central backdrop of Jerry Polner’s comedy Like Money in the Bank. Presented at The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, Like Money in the Bank offers a thin comedic spin on the establishment of the Federal Reserve System.
Written by Jerry Polner, Like Money in the Bank is a zany tale about the meeting of a suffragist social reformer and immigrant mechanic that leads them on a journey of love and social change. With a tinge of theatrical storytelling and just a series of madcap conversations, Like Money in the Bank has the makings of an important and relevant piece but sadly comes across as too teachy and preachy and just plain ol’ plain. It’s evident that Polner knows his history. His dialogue reads like a textbook rather than a character-driven play. And his characters suffer for it. As does his plot. There is an immense amount of important off stage action and an insufferable believability when it came to the speed of relaying information. There were moments characters had to travel through the city of Washington, D.C. only to enter the scene with vital information moments later, some of which was shocking they were aware of. There are certain things you can forgive in theater, but it’s the little things like that you have to grunt at.
When the play reads closer to a propaganda piece, you have to be worried. This may be the case due to the plain execution of the production. Director Shana Solomon’s approach was like a generic comedy. There was no flash or panache. There were shades of it early on but there was an ostentatious missed opportunity for a vaudevillian floorshow. Not only would it tie back to the period, it would add a much needed excitement to the explanatory text. Solomon’s staging was limited due to space but she ran into many sight line issues throughout, especially in the highly comical opening scene. When your trio of actors are relegated to the floor behind a pile of money, it’s likely heads will block your view, even in the primes seats. As a whole, the set from Joe Napolitano was underwhelming. Sans a few pieces of furniture, the green monochromatic backdrop that looked like it was pulled from a different production offered nothing to the show. For a play with an Americana theme, perhaps being on point would have been a better option. With the generic period concept, the costumes by Joseph Blaha were actually the saving grace of the overall design. Not only did they match the period, they worked for the actors.
You can only fault the actors so far before you have to look back at the material and direction. The central duo of Like Money in the Bank was Louisa and Sully played by Rachel Mewbron and Michael Zlabinger. Mewbron played into the ingénue with strength role but sadly brought no essence. Zlabinger’s Sully was an Italian immigrant and thusly was asked to include an accent. At times, Zlabinger was deterred by the accent. Clarity and consistency were not his friend. When the comedy was big, that’s when Like Money in the Bank was fun. Fortunately there was a trio of actors who took the task of boldness to heart. Leading the trio was Jack Utrata. Tackling characters including a neurotic bank teller, a salty yet sweet baker, and a zippy factory employee, Utrata proved his worth as a character actor. Utrata brought an unmatched energy to the stage that allowed him to be the standout of the show. As Utrata’s counterpart, Sarah Sirota went big. She was at her finest as the baker’s wife Charlotte. Annalisa Loeffler’s quartet of characters were often scene stealers. Loeffler worked the comedic tones the play greatly desired.
There are instant warning signs when your period piece show's graphic features comic sans. No matter what, Like Money in the Bank doesn’t quite seem to know what it needs to be. History can be fascinating but how it’s incorporated into a theatrical retelling needs to be interesting otherwise watching a documentary at your leisure may be a more viable option.