Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Big Money
Sandbox Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of Liberty Falls, 54321 and Arty's reviews of How to Have Fun in a Civil War and Silent Sky


Peter Heeringa
Photo by Matthew Glover
Sandbox Theatre has hit the jackpot with Big Money, the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction saga of a man who famously outsmarted a TV game show in the 1984. Michael Larson was, by his own account, not cut out to hold jobs. He was, instead, cut out to make plans—plans that would put maximum dollars in his pocket. Big Money uses Larson's life story as a lens for viewing the crass ballyhoo of game show get-rich culture, a perversion of the American dream into a pipe dream of instant, unearned wealth. The result is a uniquely compelling story, given a dynamic production directed by Theo Langason, and centered by a fantastic performance by Peter Heeringa.

As the audience enters the Boss Thrust Theatre at Park Square, who are playing host to Sandbox's play, a game show is in progress, with a host giving away prizes to audience members drawn at random, and telling us how to respond to the illuminated "Applause" signs hanging above all three sides of the stage. The back wall of the stage set (smartly designed by Leazah Behrens) has squares indicating cash amounts, gift merchandise, and "whammies" (the back-to-zero spot players must avoid) framed by panels of lights. In front of that game board are three contestant podiums, and on either side a control panel, one running music and sound, the other running lights show. We are all a part of live TV!

The show begins in earnest when "Press Your Luck" emcee Peter Tomarken leaps on stage to crack bad jokes, show off his smarmy good looks, and introduce the contestants—one of whom is Michael Larson. As the game progresses, flashbacks show us Michael's past and how he prepared for this moment. In September, 1983, "Press Your Luck" was launched on the CBS network. After numerous failing schemes—or plans, as Michael calls them—to strike it rich sans gainful employment, he notes that unlike other TV games, this new show requires no skill or knowledge—it is a game of sheer luck. However, he is certain there must be a pattern to the "random" placement of prizes and penalties on a game board designed to confuse contestants with dazzling blinking lights. Using newly available digital video recorders, he spends months taping every episode of the show and studying them intensely, using freeze-frame and rewind options to track the sequence of items appearing on game board.

In May, 1984, Larson cashes in the savings earned by his wife Teresa to travel from his small town Ohio home to Los Angeles. There he manipulates his way into a spot as a contestant on "Press Your Luck". Most top players on the show win between $10,000 and $20,000 in cash and "fabulous" prizes on a given day; Michael's take that day is over $100,000. The show's producers realize that he is gaming the system, yet he has broken no rules. He returns home a kind of hero, but Teresa begs him to give up on "plans" and find a regular job. Before long the money is gone, Teresa leaves, and Michael returns to obsessively plotting get-rich schemes, including TV spots pitching himself as the "famous" big winner from "Press Your Luck" and promising viewers to reveal the secret of getting rich—for a fee. Big Money takes us down Michael's losing spiral to the end of his life.

Portions of Big Money play as a straight bio-drama, especially scenes with his wife, daughter and brother James. Other scenes, such as the CBS executives' pow wows, and Michael, the self-proclaimed "smartest man I ever met" being played out of his own money, have the feel of comic sketches with physical gestures underlining the verbal wit. The TV promotions of Michael's faux lottery and Peter Tomarken's preening banter are outright parodies, and his death comes across as dream sequence. These different styles might have been at odds, but in Big Money the abrupt shifts in tone and degrees of realism all works. Together, these elements convey Michael Larson's unmoored life, as he bets against other people's inability to break rules, rules that to him totally lack reason, let alone moral ground. Director Theo Langason sees to it that every moment is played with conviction, transitioning from one to another in quick flashes like the lights on the "Press Your Luck" game board.

All of this would not work without a cast who can change gears along with the play, and a powerful performance by Peter Heeringa to anchor the whole thing. Heeringa manages to leave no doubt that Michael Larson is an asshole, a narcissist unable to consider needs or feelings of anyone but himself, and a person lacking a conscience. At the same time, he displays Larson's charm, his wit, and his almost naïve belief in the virtue of beating the system by its own rules. It's not that he never works hard. He exhausts himself studying the "Press Your Luck" game board—but cannot work on anyone's terms but his own, and cannot do a job that entails any repetition. Heeringa demonstrates this wonderfully during Michael's stint as a Wal-Mart employee, suffocating under the yoke of corporate order.

The other cast members play multiple roles. Sarah Parker is terrific as Michael's wife Teresa. She is convincing in her yearning for a stable life and dependable mate, trying desperately to hang on to the magnetism that first drew her to Michael. She captures the dim-wit stereotype of a game show contestant as Jane Litras, playing against Michael. As the other contestant on "Press Your Luck," Eric Weiman has terrific, aw-shucks modesty when introduced as yesterday's returning winner, then repressed anger when he sees Michael make a travesty of the game. He is also quite good as Michael's upright brother James, one of many people Michael uses. In one of the most touching moments in the play, Weiman, as James, having given up on Michael doing the right thing for its own sake, appeals to him to "take care of my niece." His niece, that is, Michael's daughter Jennifer, is well played by Emma Larson, making clear the tumult of her conflicting feelings toward the father she adores, but who neglects her, cheats her mother, and can never be counted on. Derek Meyer is spot-on as a vain TV game show host, straining to make a career out of marginal talent.

Big Money has been given strong support in the design department, in particular the sound and lights (Tim Donahue and Heidi Eckwall, respectively) that animate the simulated game show, and that continue to act as prompts for the play's rendition of Michael Larson's life. Mandi Johnson's costumes represent the mid 1980s setting of most of the play with good humor.

Sandbox Theatre's ensemble-created work is intended to be presented by their company, who have invested it with their own creative juice. However, Big Money is a story worth telling, about the American dream run amok. It has humor, creative stagecraft, dramatic heft, and opens dialogue on the nature of greed, ambition, virtue and success—topics clearly of interest to our current society. It would be a worthwhile project to transform this ensemble piece—with some nips and tucks, of course—into a play that could have a life on other stages, performed by other companies. In the meantime, Sandbox Theatre's work should be seen while it's on stage, a great true story told with talent, with and flash.

Big Money, a Sandbox Theatre production, continues through January 28, 2017, at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00. For tickets call 5651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org. For information about Sandbox Theatre go to sandboxtheatreonline.com.

Created by the Ensemble; Director: Theo Langason; Project Lead: Derek Lee Miller; Music and Sound Design: Tim Donahue; Scenic Design: Leazah Behrens; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Design: Heidi Eckwall; Ensemble Creators: Evelyn DiGirolamo and Heather Stone; Stage Manager: Jaya Robillard.

Cast: Peter Heeringa (Michael Larson), Emma Larson (technician, others), Derek Meyer (Peter Tomarken, others), Cameron Meilicke (technician, others), Cortez Owens (technician, others), Sarah Parker (Janie Litras, Teresa McGlynn Dinwitty, others), Eric Weiman (Ed Long, James Larson, others).


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