Also see Kevin's review of Art
It's as if Anna Nicole Smith has a new play all about her life. Affluenza!, brought to us by James Sherman of Beau Jest fame, is now getting a turn at the New Theatre in Coral Gables. Through this play, we can see how Smith may have felt when she married into the Marshall family. Greed, self-indulgence and comedy make for a great mix - and a very good departure from the usual canon of drama out of the Rafael DeAcha camp.
“Affluenza” means the epidemic of over-consumption, a condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more. Last year, the play got its world premiere at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre, where Sherman is playwright-in-residence. This New Theatre rendition is the second go around. With what is in store here, Affluenza! is likely to go into circulation with other pieces of Sherman’s repertoire.
Affluenza! takes place in Sherman’s native Chicago in the penthouse suite of William Moore (Gene Bunge). Jerome (Michael McKeever), William’s ambitious son, is steadily bidding on eBay, awaiting the arrival of his father’s new girlfriend, Dawn (Heather Gallagher). With assistance from cousin Eugene (John Manzelli), Jerome wants to find out what Dawn’s intentions are for his father.
Reveling in her own intentions, Jerome’s mother Ruth (Carole Cortland) wants a makeover, but has to get her ex-husband’s signature on her alimony check to do it. Playing referee is Bernard (Marvin Gay), the Moore servant trying to explain to his master’s guests that the billionaire doesn’t wish to be disturbed. When William finally awakens from his slumber, he is annoyed at Jerome’s attempts to sway him from love, accusing Dawn of being a gold digger. Jerome also fails at wooing Dawn with all the accessories he has bought online. Nothing can stop the love the old man and young girl feel for each other - that is, until they tie the knot. Then a new Dawn begins.
Or just Dawn showing her true colors. Once she gets the plastic, Dawn goes on a rampant shopping spree. It’s up to Jerome, Eugene and Bernard to wipe the coal out of William’s eyes, bring down the Dawn, and take back the night ... or the purse, in this case.
James Sherman pays homage to restoration comedy, shadowing Moliere‘s The Miser and the Neil Simon brothers trilogy (Eugene, Jerome). The trick in Affluenza! is that the dialogue is written in blank verse, which makes this a far cry from his previous standouts like Beau Jest and Jest a Second. Using this form of poetry might make Shakespearean purists cry havoc, but Sherman uses the rhyming cleverly to mirror the actions in the play.
Affluenza! has the commedia del arte formula down pat. The old man, the dandy of a son, the sidekick, the ex-wife, the vixen and the butler all play a part in this piece. What really gels are the players assigned to these roles. Gene Bunge is a staunch William. In giving the old coot the simple focus of being in love with this young woman, Bunge begins by being collected in his thoughts, but by the second act, he’s also hen-pecked. It takes a revelation and confrontation for Bunge to install a cleverness in Moore’s resolution to his dilemmas, giving the audience the ultimate payoff.
Michael McKeever plays Jerome as a snot-nosed brat, and it works to the hilt. Ever the schemer, Jerome tries to play his father and Dawn off each other. When that doesn’t work, he is daunted, enlisting his cousin Eugene to do the dirty work for him. McKeever brings a slyness to Jerome’s machinations that make him a funny fop.
John Manzelli channels his inner-Matthew Broderick to play Eugene. He installs an innocence in Eugene allowing us to feel his pining for Dawn. Manzelli also has a knack for physical comedy as he trips over himself as well as his words. Marvin Gay’s Bernard is a good adherent to William Moore. He never goes over the top for laughs. By playing Bernard as seriously devoted, Gay radiates as the ultimate straight man (no puns intended). Carole Cortland doesn’t have much to do in her role as ex-wife, but she taught me a new Yiddish word, "get" (divorce).
Anna Nicole could take a few lessons from Heather Gallagher in subtlety and self-restraint. Gallagher commands the most attention as the purse-and-scene stealing Dawn. When Dawn is sweet and caring, Gallagher is coy and innocent. When Dawn is revealed as a tramp, Gallagher digs in, showing Dawn’s true colors.
Rafael DeAcha hands the director’s chair over to New Theatre staple Stephen Neal. He leads his cast through Sherman’s iambic pentameter with ease. Each word resonates for hilarious results, thanks to great ensemble work. McKeever doubles as set designer, giving the play a beautiful suite, with all the comforts of affluence.
Affluenza! may not tax the mind, but with humor this good, makes James Sherman shine. And with a cast like this, it’s easy to see; that this time of season, New Theatre’s the place to be!
Affluenza runs until January 9, 2005 at 4120 Laguna Street in Coral Gables. For tickets, please call (305) 443-5909 or www.new-theatre.org.
NEW THEATRE - Affluenza!
Cast: Gene Bunge, Carole Cortland, Heather Gallagher,
Set Design: Michael McKeever
Directed by Stephen Neal
-- Kevin Johnson