Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2006
Henry (Joshua Bishoff), a divorce lawyer, and Natalie (Kelli Newby), an accountant, have been married for two years and they are experiencing some marital difficulties. Both of them brought some excess baggage into the relationship – Henry the bitter memory of his first wife who took his money and left, and Natalie the ghost, literally, of Tommy (Kevin Moran), the love she abandoned for the safety and propriety of marriage. Did I mention Natalie owes Tommy $2,700? Well, he wants it back and he is not going to rest in peace, or let Natalie and Henry do so either, until he gets it.
Actually, Natalie likes to take things. She takes Tommy’s money, Henry’s love, and a white enameled alligator pin from her friend Celeste (Phee Mayer), a chronically unemployed actress with a limp who is having a torrid affair with Henry’s boss Sidney (Edward Cating). Like Henry, Sidney has brought the pain inflicted by his unfaithful first wife into his current marriage to the faithfully repressed Marcia-Marie (Phoebe Hazzard).
No one in Where’s My Money?, currently on the boards at Main Street Stage under the direction of Bruce T. MacDonald, is happy or knows how to be happy or shows the slightest sign that they have resolved any of their problems by the final curtain. I had heard this show categorized as a very dark comedy, but while there are a few laughs to be had, mostly at the expense of the pathetic characters playwright John Patrick Shanley presents, I did not come away from this show smiling.
Shanley is a Pultizer Prize-winning playwright, but Where’s My Money? is not his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. While his love of language shines through, Shanley has constructed this play out of a series of overly long scenes so that even though the show only runs about 100 minutes, there are times when you feel as if nothing is happening and nothing ever will. MacDonald’s static direction doesn’t help.
For instance, the first scene introduces us to Natalie and Celeste, but about thre-quarters of the way through it I was looking at my program and my watch thinking, “Will there be time to get to all these other characters?” And then Tommy’s ghost popped up and I was briefly interested, but by the three-quarter mark in the next scene between Natalie and Henry I was just as antsy.
The ghosts (there is a second one eventually), who are made to look quite ghoulish, only appear at the ends of the scenes, and, in an interesting twist on the normally accepted theory of supernatural sightings, everyone can see and hear them not just the characters responsible for their unrest. These are quite substantial ghosts actually, capable of crashing through solid wood and throttling people with their bare hands, and they care about very earthly things, like money and white enameled alligator pins. In a direct slap in the face to the old “you can’t take it with you” theory, Tommy’s ghost literally takes the money and runs. What can you do with $2,700 in cash in the afterlife? What an unsettling question! It’s all I can do to save for retirement.
Marriage is a difficult thing to define, but none of Shanley’s characters have even decided for themselves what they want out of the institution, let alone what they want from their partners. Their loves and passions are all woefully misplaced, which is why they are all so miserable and remain that way.
MacDonald has assembled a relatively inexperienced cast, some of whom seem to be able to get a grip on Shanley’s slippery material, and others of whom don’t.
Before I discuss the actors in particular, I should mention that this production has had a rocky rehearsal period. Scott Moran, originally cast as Sidney, was in a car accident recently and unable to perform. The sudden and completely unforeseen loss of a key actor is obviously distressing to any company. Since Scott is the brother of Kevin Moran who plays Tommy’s ghost, the impact here was personal as well as professional.
I would be lying if I said this production was really ready for the opening night performance that I saw. Cating did an admirable job in a large and demanding role, but he was not 100% sure of his lines or his performance, which was nerve-wracking for his colleagues. But I have to say I was much crosser with the rest of the cast and the crew for not offering Cating more support on stage than I was with Cating for being unavoidably under-rehearsed. His cast-mates should have been ready and able to carry him over the rough spots and keep the show moving, and they apparently weren’t.
But when Cating was in control of his material and his performance he was very good. As was Hazzard, as the miserable Marcia-Marie. Their scene together late in the play was a highlight of this production.
I also enjoyed Mayer as Celeste, the only optimistic character in this mess – that is until Natalie gets a hold of her and tells her to follow her excellent example and cast off all pleasures in return for social respectability and financial security. Unfortunately Newby is unable to give us a Natalie in transition. In the first scene she is all uptight accountant, and then for the rest of the play, after she literally lets her hair down, she reverts to the whiny, slutty material girl persona that she has just informed Celeste she had abandoned. If the uptight accountant is literally a costume Natalie wears at work and nowhere else no wonder her former life won’t leave her alone.
And in the midst of this all is Bishoff in a completely clueless performance as Henry. Bishoff is about a decade too young for this role – if Henry had actually gotten through an addiction to heroin, recovery, law school, a failed attempt to pass the bar, and two marriages by his mid-twenties he would have been one of the most highly functioning junkies known to mankind. I believed, for whatever reason (and I’m not sure Shanley actually gives us one), that Henry loved Natalie and wanted their marriage to work, but nothing else about Bishoff’s performance rang true for me.
No one is credited with the set design, and that is probably just as well. The black-on-black walls surrounding the few bits of furniture give the stage a cave-like quality and add to the overall sense of darkness that envelopes this show. Unnecessarily clumsy set changes interrupt the action all through the play.
I think if I were young and hip I would have gotten a kick out of the background music tape created by MacDonald and Michael Trainor. The music was intriguing, and the song Natalie and Tommy’s ghost danced to was ideally haunting.
I am glad that MacDonald has chosen to present Where’s My Money? without an intermission. I am sure that is how Shanley intended it to play and I can’t think of a suitable breaking point in the action. Shanley does succeed in creating a believable world filled with mortals and spirits colliding in pain, and a retreat to the lobby for soda and a cookie would have broken that reality.
I hope that further performance and rehearsal gives this cast a chance to settle down and solidify this production and let Cating hit his stride. If he and Bishoff can establish a believable chemistry and rhythm to their scene together the whole show will flow more smoothly. I wish them well, and I recommend that audience members wait until the second weekend of this three week run to give this show a chance to gel.
Where’s My Money? runs weekends through July 22. The show runs an hour and forty minutes with no intermission. There is a great deal of graphic sex talk and some groping and panting, not to mention scary ghosts,that render this show unsuitable for children. For reservations or more information call Main Street Stage at 413-663-3240 or visit their Web site. The theatre is located at 57 Main Street in North Adams, a few doors east of Papyri Books.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006