When a play is full of suits that are sharper than its dialogue, you know you're in trouble. If nothing else can be said about Burleigh Grime$, Roger Kirby's witheringly stupefying new comedy at New World Stages, at least the actors look good. Their clothes, with one forgivable exception, bring the affluent ardor of Wall Street deal making screaming into the Theatre District in an eye-popping blaze of impeccable tailoring and taste.
"Taste," however, isn't a word appropriately applied to anyone but costume designer Gregory Gale in this inflated, insulting enterprise. Reducing one of New York theatre's most enchanting, versatile actresses (Nancy Anderson) to a nameless, practically voiceless, presence is bad enough. But the play's relentlessly cynical story is so churningly classist and anti-capitalism, you might wonder for a moment whether you've stepped into Bertolt Brecht's original Threepenny Opera.
To Kirby, everyone who makes money, talks about money, or even looks at money, is a down-and-dirty crook. Each of his characters, from the stock broker of the title (Mark Moses) to his assistants (Jason Antoon and John Lavelle), from the newcomer trying to break in to the lusty, lucrative world (James Badge Dale) to the financial reporters who make news as often as they read it (Wendie Malick and Ashley Williams), are sleazy with a capital S, dancing with each other (figuratively and literally) only to be best positioned for a more efficient backstab.
That's not to say that this play, or any, needs heroes. But when it becomes obvious that the playwright is actively stripping all shred of humanity from his characters by ensuring that not one utters a humane, trustworthy word all evening, it's hard not to feel that your good faith as an audience member has been taken advantage of.
Kirby has a clear point of view; and more plays would benefit from such an upfront statement of principles. But that he doesn't care about how falsely he relates that message, or about the basic rules of common sense and dramatic construction he must violate in order to do it, suggests he reveals himself little better than the money grubbers he's trying to skewer.
The story, which for the sanity of the reader will not be explained in detail here, is so incomprehensible that Kirby, director David Warren, and musical stager Andy Blankenbuehler have attempted to clarify the first act's more esoteric points with dance. But that choreography, set against a throbbing David Yazbek rock score played live, consists only of simplistic broken-down waltzes and torrid tangos that interrupt the story without elucidating it.
The dances - and any pretense of plot coherence - vanish in Act Two. All that remains are those killer costumes, James Youmans's sleek skyscraper-inspired set, and Jeff Croiter's cutting lights. And, oh yes, the performers, most of whom look like they're having as much trouble following the Möbius strip-like plot that Kirby substitutes for solid situational and characterological writing. Almost no one is remotely convincing, but that's Kirby's fault: Everyone onstage is professional.
Anderson is her usual, glorious exception, making an invigorating something of the show's most nothing roles. She plays Grimes's put-upon-but-plotting wife with an ironic streak so vicious it could pierce glass. Her hip-swiveling coffee girl - who, like Anderson herself, looks like she should have been in the recent Broadway revival of Sweet Charity - makes recovering caffeineoholics like me want to jump right back off the wagon. And her sinfully sinewy stripper arouses some much-needed excitement amid the dreary chaos surrounding her.
Yes, this woman, who's miraculously evaded law enforcement after stealing countless shows outright, is reduced to pole dancing in a G-string. (Cue the barrage of comments about the health of the theatre.) Her demeaning loss, however, is our gain: What other actress could bring such titillating depth to such embarrassingly shallow roles? Those who've followed Anderson's burgeoning career - most recently including a dazzling turn in last season's Fanny Hill - know that she can never, ever work too often.
But oh what she must do for her paycheck. What Kirby and Warren have forced upon her here removes from Burleigh Grime$ what few teeth it might have had: Their decrying those who take advantage of others to make a living means zilch when they themselves willingly and savagely exploit one of New York's best to make their own.