Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Actors Outshine Old Money

Wendy Wasserstein's Old Money is having its west coast premier at TheatreWorks. Ms. Wasserstein began to earn a place as one of our prime American playwrights with The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig. However, she started losing that title with American Daughter and now with Old Money. The main problem with this play is that, once again, Ms. Wasserstein throws too wide a net in an attempt to show that old monied families were once the nouveau rich in New York. The play becomes frustrating when she covers money, real estate, social mores of high society in the early 1900s, and the social conscience of the rich in the 21st Century all in the space of 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission. The playwright goes from topic to topic in a disjointed manner and she does not spend enough time to get to the heart of the matter.

The setting in Old Money moves back and forth between 1910 and 2001 in an old robber baron's private mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The restoration of a Victorian house provides an occasion for the house's new owner Jeffrey Bernstein, a newly rich billionaire, to wine and dine New York's most elite. His young son Ovid, an aspiring novelist, invites Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer III, the septuagenarian grandson of the building's original owner and an expert in New York history, to the party.

Tobias has returned to the house for the first time since he was 12 years old. He finds that the fabric of time begins to unravel from the present to that past "golden age" of Wharton's high New York society. He becomes privy to apparitions of faces and voices that have been long gone from his life. The crux of the play is the similarity between two completely unrelated families, the old money of the Pfeiffers and the new money of the Bernsteins. Each actor plays two parts, one being a Pfeiffer or one of their friends, and the other being one of the Bernsteins or one of their friends. It is an interesting concept since the play keeps moving between past to present scene by scene and sometimes the new family interacts with the old family. Unfortunately, some of the characters are just sketches and come and go at will, and some of the scenes are confusing as to what part or in what period the actor is playing.

The acting in this production is provided by some of the Bay Area's best actors, and all are outstanding in their dual roles. Ken Ruta plays the dual role of Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer III and the mansion's architect in the early years of the 20th Century. He is both jocular and moving as the sickly gay novelist Tobias. He uses Tobias's wonderful speech patterns like a murmuring brook. His body language and facial expressions are perfect. The play is well worth the price of admission just to see him perform in the lead role.

Peter James Meyers is doubly cast as the billionaire hedge-fund analyst Jeffrey Bernstein, and as retailer Arnold Strauss in the "old money" sequences. Both are ambitious nouveau rich Jews who want to get into the high society of New York's upper crust social scene. Mr. Meyers is excellent as Jeffrey Bernstein, a man with a social conscience who was once a legal aid attorney and taught civics in the Head Start program, and as Mr. Strauss who wants desperately to gain entrance into the society of the Astors and the Vanderbilts, but cannot because he is a Jew.

Sheila O'Neill Ellis is outstanding as the contemporary artist Saulina Webb and as Sally Wester, an unconventional early 20th century artist who is the model of a liberated woman - something of an Isadora Duncan of the art world. She plays both roles as an aggressively upwardly mobile female.

Richard Gallagher, a new young actor, does a sterling job as Ovid Walpole Bernstein and as Tobias Pfeiffer II. He is full of enthusiasm in both roles. Kevin Blackstone plays a caricature of the worst of the new Hollywood producers in 2001. You get the idea that Ms. Wasserstein has no love for film producers since this man is the most unlikeable person to know. He is crass, rude and uses the "F" word at least once in every sentence. In his dual role, Blackstone plays Tobias Pfeiffer I as a strong and dominant robber baron. He has a strong, melodious voice that somehow reminds me of Kelsey Grammer, and he can seem charming and dangerous at the same time.

Rebecca Dines is a little too flinty as publicist Flinty McGee. Amanda Duarte gives a super performance as the hostile daughter of the producer and then turns her character around as the demure Irish maid, Mary Gallager, in the original Pfeiffer household. Bonnie Akimoto does not have much room to fill out her roles as the lingerie designer wife of the producer or as the wife of the original Tobias Pfeiffer.

The set by Eric E. Sinkkonen is a Victorian delight full of wonderful props, polished woods, garden views through glass doors in the rear of the set, and imaginative murals painted by the set designer. The costumes by Famiko Bielefedt capture both the old and new, with gowns of the early 1900s full of lace and satin and the men in white suits for a New York August. They look like they came directly out of an Edith Wharton film. The dresses of the 21st century are properly au courant chic.

Old Money plays through February 10 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $22 to $40. For tickets call (650)903-6000 or visit TheatreWorks web site at Their next production is the Jazzy new drama by Regina Taylor, Oo-Bla-Dee which was presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year.

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

- Richard Connema

Privacy Policy