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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Excellent Production of
Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money

Also see Richard's review of Beauty and the Beast

A.C.T.'s Master of Fine Arts Program is presenting an excellent production of Caryl Churchill’s dark satire Serious Money, a play about the cutthroat dealings of corporate raiders which is as prevalent in today’s financial world as it was when the play first premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1987. I saw the production when it transferred to the West End later that year. The lampoon of the effects of the “Big Bang” had very limited appeal to American audiences since it played only 15 performances at the Royale Theater in New York in February, 1988. Alec Baldwin, Kate Nelligan and Melinda Mullins were in that cast. It has been not been presented by regional companies in this country because it is too British. The satire escapes the American audiences.

Critics have stated that Serious Money is Caryl Churchill’s most notorious play and I am inclined to agree with them. The parody is too brutal about those days of the Big Bang in London. It helps if you have some sort of working knowledge of what was happening in the financial world with the city of London suddenly becoming the money capital of the world.

Serious Money is written in a verse structure and it features Brechtian style musical interludes and songs penned by the late rock star Ian Drury. It is a contemptuously funny condemnation of the rampant greed and amorality of the 1980s financial world and, I would state, in today’s world, what with the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

Caryl Churchill’s satire is a valiant thriller set against the backdrop of the London Stock Exchange. City dealer Jake Todd (John Patrick Higgins) is found shot dead, a possible suicide. He had been implicated in an insider trading scandal. His sister Scilla (Amanda Hasting-Phillips) does not believe her brother killed himself and as the nature of the brother’s crimes become more apparent, her pursuit of his killers turns into a hunt for his illegally made millions. The play is an insight as to just what drives capitalists to make money and asks the question “When is enough indeed enough?” The answer, according to this play's characters, is “Never.”

Seventeen actors from the A.C.T. M.F.A. class of 2003 are playing more then 30 roles on the studio stage of the new 210 seat Zeum Theatre. The Master of Fine Arts Program has been compared to the Actors Workshop in New York. U.S. News and World Report says the program is the first theater training program in the country not affiliated with a college or university that has been accredited to award the master of fine arts degree. These talented young actors will go out into the world of theatre and films following this production. All of the actors give fine performances, sporting excellent British accents, and make this a night of cutting edge theater.

There are some first-rate performances by these artists; especially outstanding are Amanda Hastings-Phillips and Edward Nattenberg. Ms. Phillips, who plays Scilla, reminds me of a young Meryl Streep and she gives good account of herself as the feisty young woman who is determined to get to the bottom of her brother’s death. She also shows her greed for money while doing the investigation. Nattenberg is the perfect crude rags to riches corporate raider who carries bottles of Pepto Bismol around with him during the play. He does tend to overact when he becomes angry about losing money. In fact, several times I thought he was going to break up the props when he became irritated. Camila Borrero is very sexy in her performance as Jacinta Condor, a Peruvian businesswoman who cannot schedule time to have sex with Zac Zackerman, a banker with Klein Merrick Corp. The latter also gives a very good performance. J.P. Higgins as the very proper English country gentlemen Jake Todd is admirable.

Jonathan Moscone’s direction is fast and furious. The opening scene of the complete cast in the London Stock Exchange with everyone yelling and screaming “buy” and “sell,” and couples trying to set up dates for after the exchange closes is masterful. Also, the incorporation of a rap melody sung by the whole cast at the end of the first act is exceptional. The end of the production has the whole cast singing what could have been the ending of a Bertoit Brecht/Kurt Weill opera.

Serious Money plays at the Zeum Theatre located at 4th and Howard Street behind the Carousel through November 2nd. Tickets are only $15 with discounts for ACT subscribers, students, full-time teachers and seniors. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or go online at act-sfbay.org.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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