12:58 AM CST, January 19, 2012
Most of us know someone who has been laid off. And many of us are aware of someone else, if not ourselves, who subsequently had to humble themselves to find another job. They've taken a lower salary, perhaps, or retreated toward entry level. Maybe, in growing desperation, they even called in a favor from a smug old acquaintance to whom they'd rather not be beholden.
But anyone wanting to really see the depth of the horrors of recession indignity laid bare should buy a ticket for Dennis Kelly's "Love and Money" at the typically unstinting Steep Theatre. In one truly gruesome scene therein, we see a middle-age fellow (played by Peter Moore) beg for a lousy-paying job from his ex-girlfriend (Darci Nalepa), a former lover with the early-in-life savvy to study business and who milks this little turnaround on life's great carousel of power with a mixture of deeply patronizing condescension and barely concealed glee as she tells her ex that his debt-creating degree in English literature does not amount to a hill of beans.
"I'll take care of you," she promises, licking her lips with castrating schadenfreude, as her former lover, a guy who once dumped her, seems to dissolve before your eyes into a post-macho puddle. I nearly choked at the horror of it. If any scene could persuade an arts major of the folly of their ways, this is that scene.
Kelly's fascinating play, which premiered in Manchester in 2006 and fits right into the kind of searing, contemporary, noir British work that Steep has figured out how to do very well in its North Side storefront, is the best play you're ever likely to see about debt. Granted, that's a small pool.
But the strictures of indebtedness — and, more specifically, the way consumer debt has a way of torpedoing other seemingly separate aspects of life, like a marriage or a career — is a potent theme in this debt-riddled moment, macro and micro. Kelly's play has a lose structure; it's more vignettes than a tightly formed play, and that is, on occasion, confounding and reductive. But we nonetheless fully grasp the breakdown, told in reverse, of a young couple (played by Moore and Julia Siple, both doing the best acting work I've ever seen either of them do) who start out with all kinds of hope and end up, in different ways, stone-cold dead — torn apart, the play implies, by profiteering bankers and their own failings.
This is a piece where characters are constantly taking the audience into their confidence, revealing the extent to which their debt, easily achieved, has eaten away at self-esteem. In one horrific confession, which comes in the very first scene, Moore's David reveals that his first thought after discovering that his wife, up to her ears in consumer debt, had committed suicide was that he could now finally afford the car he wanted. You recoil from the moment, but thanks in no small part to Robin Witt's intensely detailed direction and Moore's raw honesty, you also understand the feeling, directly before you hate yourself for having understood it. When a show is sparking that Beckettian level of complexity of response, making an audience feel something and then hate the feeling, it's doing something right.
You've surely read enough to know that "Love and Money" is not a fun night out. Au contraire. I watched a woman a couple of seats away from me sink lower and lower in her chair as the 90 minutes progressed. But "Love and Money" is strikingly wide ranging in its themes and observations, veering from a withering dissection of the credit trap, wherein poor credit risks pay higher interest rates thus making them ever-poorer credit risks, to offering up metaphysical speculation involving human debt and the Big Bang, and characters saying poignant, half-understood things like, "Isn't money dead, or something? Don't we know that in our heart of hearts?"
Well, sure we do, but we also know that life without it ain't no bed of roses. Still, this piece is more interested in depicting a world that's not quite right, a world where we sacrifice natural human bonds for cash. Time and again, we see characters confusing intimacy with acquisition, most notably in a deeply disturbing scene where a young woman (also played by Nalepa) is forced to give up her dignity for a creepy man (Gregory Rothman) offering a fetishistic opportunity at a terrible price.
Many English plays attack excessive materialism. But what makes the work of Kelly (who more recently wrote the hit book for the Broadway-bound "Matilda") distinctive is that his grasping characters aren't bankers or big-time capitalists. They never have much; an Audi is about as big as they dream. They're all part of Kelly's picture of a world that has lost its way and settled for less. This is a cautionary tale with a dystopian bent, an episodic cri de coeur that society has been woefully inattentive to the personal costs of what began happening to ordinary people in the middle of the last decade. And remains so.
In Chicago, it's also host to a feast of gut-wrenching acting, not all of it polished, but all coming from deep, deep within. Nalepa reveals a remarkable emotional spectrum, and the rest of the cast digs deep into its collective gut for Witt, who sculpts all of this into a very satisfying storefront production that will, I suspect, be entirely what Steep's growing audience of loyal followers comes to that theater to see. For not much money.
When: Through Feb. 25
Where: Steep Theatre Company, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
Tickets: $22-$25 at 866-811-4111 and steeptheatre.com
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