Where's My Money? is the title of John Patrick Shanley's new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and there's a very strong chance you may be asking the same question once the play is over.
Shanley has packed the play's 90 minute running time with odd characters, bizarre speeches, predictable plot twists, and even what looks like the opening credits sequence of a TV show, minus the credits. As the play develops, the appropriateness of this particular choice becomes more and more clear, even if its being set against the theme song to Perry Mason does not. This choice must also be attributed to Shanley, who also directed; the inconsistency of tone is as serious here as it is later, when the show seems to veer between prime-time soap opera and B-grade horror flick with reckless abandon.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the play itself feels less like a theatre piece than a low budget TV show. The first scene is particularly comic with Celeste (Yetta Ann Gottesman) and Natalie (Paula Pizzi) sitting outside, sipping drinks, and discussing the strange turns their lives have taken in the years since they've last seen each other. Celeste, an actress with a limp, is living with an unambitious, drug-using rock musician, while Natalie has taken up accounting and married a lawyer. They are both highly critical of the other, but the atmosphere is broken when a man, played by Chris McGarry, shows up at the end of the scene and shouts at Natalie, "Where's my money?" Perhaps not unusual except, as Natalie informs us, the man has been dead for years.
One thing Shanley is good at is keeping you on your toes - there's no way to know for sure what's going to happen next. The next scene, which takes place between Natalie and her husband, Henry (Erik Laray Harvey), barely seems to belong to the same play at first. Eventually, the script recovers, and things get as back on track as they ever get: Henry goes to talk to his boss, Sidney (David Deblinger), Sidney meets up with his wife (Florencia Lozano), and Henry and Natalie finally bring their story - and the play - to a close, while the dead continue to pop up throughout the evening.
Confused? Don't be. The play doesn't feel like it's supposed to make much sense. The resolution of the play, for example, when Natalie must confront her ghosts, only makes sense as long as you don't think about it. But the rest of the time, Shanley seems less interested in telling a real story or illuminating some aspect of the human condition than he does displaying his own facilities as a writer. Henry's scene with Sidney contains a lengthy speech in which Sidney does little but toss off one clever line after another. One of them: "Monogamy is like a 40-watt bulb. It works, but it's not enough." Actually, that could well apply to all of Shanley's writing in the play - clever is fine, but when it sacrifices character, it stops being entertaining very quickly.
Thus armed, it is especially difficult for the actors to turn in compelling performances. Pizzi's plays the central role, but is not quite up to the task; she is difficult enough to accept in the first, and lightest, scene and is not served by the darker and heavier material later in the play. McGarry, unencumbered by most of the dialogue that causes problems for everyone else, probably turns in the best overall performance, but Harvey generally comes across as fairly believable. Deblinger has some of the play's funniest but most unworkable lines, and doesn't really sell them as Sidney's unique philosophy on life. Gottesman and Lazano provide their roles' basic requirements, but little else. Michelle Malavet's set, with skewed perspectives and unusually sized doors, and Sarah Sidman's melodramatic lighting design, provide a strangely fitting atmosphere for this show. Still, one thing that can be said about Shanley's work in Where's My Money? is he'll always leave you guessing. You may see a few plot developments coming, but on the whole, the arc of the story will almost certainly surprise you. It's a shame, then, that it will leave you scratching your head afterwards as well, wondering what the point of it all was. That's something else that Shanley, alas, forgot to include.
Manhattan Theatre Club