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Love & Money

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Joe Paulik, Maureen Anderman, and Gabriel Brown.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Repentance does not come easy in Love & Money, the new play by A.R. Gurney that just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center. That's true of both the playwright and the character he's put at the center of this entertaining but hollow 75-minute comedy: Cornelia Cunningham, an aging, super-wealthy WASP who's determined to atone for the sins of her forebears and her long-departed husband by giving away all her money before moving into the upscale retirement community where she plans to see out the last of her years.

Certainly the topic is fair, smart game for Gurney, who's spent most of his career examining how the fading WASP culture in and around Buffalo has struggled to cope with an increasingly modern world at odds with it; Cornelia (Maureen Anderman) may just be the most introspective and clear-headed to date. "I'm expiating my crime before I die," she tells her lawyer, the young and brash Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik), when he arrives to convince her that she needs to slow down on the unchecked philanthropy lest family members—real and otherwise—emerge termite-like from the woodwork to claim the inheritance they believe they're do.

"I've committed the major crime of having too much money," she explains. When Harvey balks, she continues, "It becomes a crime when millions of people elsewhere in the world have hardly a plug nickel." Hoping to correct the wrongs she's experienced in her own family, she wants children all over the world to benefit from the money that's systematically destroyed the children and the grandchildren she wishes she could hold dear.

The burning question of the week, however, is whether that also includes Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown), aka Scott. After contacting Harvey's office, he appears at the door of Cornelia's stunning Upper East Side townhouse (Michael Yeargan designed the elegantly appointed, cozily cramped set), insisting that he's her long-lost grandson: the product of an illicit affair between Cornelia's daughter, Louisa, and a Buffalo electrical engineer who met her on a business trip. There are just two wrinkles. First, and less important, Scott is black. More crucial: He can't exactly back up his story; every piece of evidence requires some leap of faith (usually a long one) and in-your-face squinting to piece together, though in that case everything does check out.

Love & Money does not turn on whether Scott is telling the truth or not, though that matter is eventually resolved. It's more concerned with how Cornelia approaches the decision-making process, and what even having to deal with it means for her background and her attempts to scrub it clean of all guilt. This, after all, is not an ungenerous woman. In addition to giving away millions to major organizations, she'll also set up individuals: She's paying to keep her beloved servant, Agnes (Pamela Dunlap), comfortable until her death, and has even committed to donating a valuable player piano to the Juilliard School of Drama. This is a woman who lives what she preaches, but how far is she willing to go?

If it's not necessarily a bad idea, it demands a more committed, robust treatment than Gurney gives it here. The stakes aren't high enough: There's no worry, for example, that Cornelia's entire well-being is at stake, or even that Scott would be able to get much under any event (it would be tied up in court for years, Harvey explains). And because Scott is presented as bright, amiable, and energetic, you have no reason to believe he won't succeed on his own if things don't turn out his way; later on, when he protests at the very notion of starting out at the bottom of the ladder, it seems out of character for a young man who's not prone to acting as though he's entitled for anything other than recognition.

Without out any underlying weight, all that's left is the froth, and there's too much even of that. When the Juilliard student, Jessica (Kahyun Kim), arrives to inspect the piano, she shortly takes over the stage to deliver Cole Porter's "Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please" in its entirety. Agnes brings a brusquely Irish sensibility to the proceedings, as if herself a modern-day parody of the kind of housekeeper Cornelia's parents may have employed once upon a time. And, as the play reaches its conclusion, talk about a dinner party accelerates, as if to suggest that these people are ultimately in the process of fashioning a contemporary family that would anchor a newfangled, if not unrecognizable, A.R. Gurney play themselves.

There's plenty of fun to be had here, though none of it really coheres. At once overwrought and underdeveloped, the play feels like a much longer piece that's been cut down to appetizer size (important events occurring outside of the living room pass by in a flash), as if to hit the Big Points efficiently and not worry to much about anything else. (The ending, which wraps up another Gurney passion in Cornelia's matchmaking efforts, is especially preposterous.) Director Mark Lamos has arranged things decently, but can't overcome these basic deficiencies; his staging has the feeling of pushing pieces around without ever explaining why.

The performances have a similar feel, particularly from the three most prominent roles. Anderman doesn't do much to explain Cornelia psychologically, but makes her a high-bred hoot who's becoming bewitched by the captivating role she's found herself playing; her pensive facial expressions and emphatic hand gestures (Cornelia raises a fist when declaring she voted for Obama) are cleverly, if visibly, calculated. Everyone else latches onto one color and plays it to the hilt: Paulik is sharp but dry, Brown sunnily inscrutable, Dunlap acid-tongued, and Kim cheerily optimistic. It's a lovely, forgettable palette.

You don't sense that Gurney wants much more from Love & Money, and that he's living up to what Cornelia avows late in the evening: "It's my firm belief that if we mind our manners and make a decent effort, and give everyone a chance, we'll end up having a perfectly marvelous time." True enough, though it's not tough to wish that Gurney had departed from Cornelia and chosen to set his sights a smidgen higher.

Love & Money
Through October 4
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer Avenue & 10th Avenue
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