Thomas Burns Scully
It’s no news to anyone that A. R. Gurney has a preoccupation with privilege, money, and all that goes along with it. Over the years his plays have dealt extensively with the WASP set, and the inherent guilt of social mobility and financial excess. If this is what you know and love him for, then you’ll be pleased to hear that his latest play, ‘Love and Money’, is about those self-same things. Currently at the Signature Theatre, (co-produced with the Westport Country Playhouse) ‘Love and Money’ treads gamely through the ivy-beleaguered savanna that Gurney became known for in ‘The Dining Room’, and builds on several of his recurring themes. Family and privilege, the thematic Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts of Gurney’s pieces, are back again in force, but they bring with them a new Emma Stone figure: race.
Elderly widow and self-identifying WASP Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) feels she is coming to the end of her life. She is moving to a luxury retirement community, and before she does she wants to make sure that all her money and possessions are given away to deserving charities. To that end, her lawyer, Harvey (Joe Paulik), has come around to help secure her wishes and refine her will. They are interrupted in this process by the sudden arrival of a young black man who calls himself Scott (Gabriel Brown). He claims to be Cunningham’s estranged grandson, and proceeds to charm her with talk of Cole Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is after a slice of inheritance from Cornelia to put him through business school. Throughout their discussions they are assisted by Cornelia’s long-term housekeeper, Agnes (Pamela Dunlap), and treated to musical interludes from Juilliard student Jessica (Kahyun Kim), to whom Cornelia is donating a piano. And so the scene is set.
For all its talk of wealth, society and so on, ‘Love and Money’ is actually a very light play. Not frothy or overly fanciful, but if you want a hard-hitting look at the American caste system, then you are better off looking elsewhere. The discussions of race are fairly short-winded, and are nothing you wouldn’t hear discussed politely on morning NPR. It adds a little spice to proceedings, but is generally dealt with in a straightforward, middle-left manner. The play is more about the curses of the upper-class than anything else. Even then, the play isn’t particularly woe-is-me about things. Gurney’s viewpoint through Cornelia is more to do with looking at the stupidity of it all, how much simpler love would be without money, and about how all we can really hope for is to do some good with what we have. Again, we’re back on morning NPR. Perhaps a hard-hitting discussion would have been nice at some point, to give the play some heft and fire, but, really, this just isn’t that sort of play.
What the play is, first and foremost, is a humanist, character driven, drawing room comedy. The eccentric old widow, the by-the-book lawyer, the manic pixie dream grandson, the Irish maid, the sassy arts student… these are all types. They are better fleshed out here than in other works, but for the purposes of narrative they are semi-archetypal. Their conflicting and/or complimentary characteristics are what set the play in to motion, and their verbal dexterity is what gives the play its comic spark. All the ideas about money give the play an illusion of meatiness, but really what you’re doing is watching a funny old lady doing funny old lady things with people who are either trying to pacify or encourage her. This is the main feature of the show, and also its best feature. It makes you laugh and think, but it doesn’t make you think that much.
The cast are a lovely collection of actors, and a marvelously eclectic bunch too. As far as diversity goes, ‘Love and Money’ is to be welcomed with open arms. For one thing, the cast is 60% female, which doesn’t happen often enough. It’s also 40% over sixty, 40% non-caucasian, and, what’s more, not one actor plays a racial stereotype. If there were an Off-Broadway diversity charter, this play would surely be up for some kind of an award. Maureen Anderman plays a fantastic eccentric, and is clearly enjoying doing what she was put on Earth to do. Joe Paulik plays barely-repressed frustration as if born to a stomach ulcer. Pamela Dunlap is excellent as a no-nonsense Irish maid. Gabriel Brown has an Adrian Lester-like twinkle in his eye, with perhaps a hint of young Robert Redford nestled in their somewhere. Kahyun Kim rounds out the cast, bringing some nice fun to a smaller role that could seem redundant in the hands of a lesser actress. They all make a wonderful ensemble, playing together with charm-inspiring efficacy. A reason alone to go and see the show.
And you should go and see ‘Love and Money’, if you have the time and inclination. It is not a life-changing theatre experience, neither is it the last word in theatrical social-philosophy, but it is also distinctly non-tiresome. The play moves by at a spry trot, never losing focus or letting the audience fall asleep. Gurney’s writing is humorous and lightly playful, while also lending itself to moments of real vulnerability. The cast are fun, on-the-ball and hard-working. If you want an enjoyable, light visit to the theatre, then you can do a lot worse than ‘Love and Money’. Give it a look, it’s always a pleasure to hear a little more from A. R. Gurney.
‘Love and Money’ by A. R. Gurney opens officially on August 24th and will play through until October 4th. Tickets are $25. For more info and full show schedule please consult: signaturetheatre.org.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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