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Serious Money (02/09/1988 - 02/20/1988)


New York Daily News: "Wonderfully Ruthless People"

I don't know how the dollar stands against the pound these days, but judging by "Serious Money," which has moved to Broadway with an American cast, we may be approaching artistic, if not economic parity.

Caryl Churchill's romp through the world of international high finance is as savage as it was with its original English cast. The play is essentially a cartoon, its cuthroat traders and bankers fairly gross caricatures.

The plot concerns an attempt to understand why a young man with a promising career killed himself. In fact, no one really cares. What moves them is their fear of how his death will affect their underhanded dealings.

These are people whose movements are governed by numbers on green screens rather than conventional emotions. Under Max Stafford-Clark's taut direction, the actors play them with such gusto that their two-dimensionality doesn't matter.

Particularly impressive is Alec Baldwin, who plays a ruthless takeover expert. With his rasping gangster's voice and hulking Neanderthal stance he makes the crude character as sardonic as a villain in Dickens.

John Pankow plays an American go-getter seemingly as "open" as a Californian explaining the wonders of sunflower seeds. His "openness" makes his ruthlessness seem much sharper.

Kate Nelligan demonstrates, with great flair, that "a woman may smile and smile and be a villain." Michael Wincott is strong as a series of weak men on the fringes of the boom.

Allan Corduner, the one English holdover, remains an arresting center to this disgusting circus. Some of the other characterizations are less defined than the originals, but the play, which depends on a frenetic pace rather than any human depth, works nevertheless.

The people who seem to laugh the hardest at "Serious Money" are those who understand the jargon and technical terms, those for whom the financial maneuverings are everyday matters. In his witty, incisive new book "Money and Class in America," Lewis Lapham suggests our major religion now is Mammon worship. If he's right, you might say "Serious Money" is like a parish variety show, where the priests guffaw at their flock's attempts to rib them.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "A Na$ty Business"

There is something oddly unpleasant about Caryl Churchill's saga of English hijinks in high finance and high places, which opened on Broadway at the Royale Theater last night.

There is nothing wrong about a play being unpleasant - some of the best modern plays from Shaw onwards have, intentionally, been just that - it is the oddity that disturbs.

Churchill is a British left-wing playwright who presumably finds the laissez-faire economic policies of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government outrageous and London's financial center - a colonial outpost of Wall Street called simply the City - nothing but an appalling jungle, full of paper tigers and profitable snakes.

"Serious Money" is an extended Brechtian revue sketch - often quite rambunctious in humor, and consistently scabrous in language - clearly intended to blow the lid off this world of fiscal pirates and financial buccaneers.

But a funny thing happened to Churchill on the way to the theater. She fell in love. She ended up - it seems to me - secretly adoring or, at least, openly admiring the very people and the very landscape she started out to satirize. She came to bury Mammon and ended up praising him.

The play started in London in March of last year at the nationally subsidized Royal Court Theater, and subsequently moved, with enormous success, to London's West End, where it is still playing.

In November most of the original Royal Court cast brought the play to Joseph Papp's Public Theater, under the Royal Court's ongoing exchange program with the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Now completely recast - with just one exception - with American actors, "Serious Money" in an American replica edition is setting out to discover whether it can also be a serious hit making serious money on Broadway, and, perhaps, whether it can become the favored plaything of yuppies and would-be yuppies it has proved to be in London.

The play is full of financial jargon - some of it obvious but much of it arcane - and modish English slang. However what you miss in the language you can take on trust as local atmosphere.

And atmosphere is what the play chiefly deals in. There is no story to speak of. A young man, who was apparently a go-between in shady financial trading, has been found dead, and his sister, more out for financial profit than revenge, unavailingly investigates his death.

At the end we know no more of what happened than we did at the beginning, and the murky waters of the play are further muddied by a chronology that flashbacks on the turn of an instant, and all the actors playing two, three or even more roles - sometimes indicated merely with the flick of an accent.

Churchill tells us that these financiers are hard-drinking, coke-sniffing monsters, full of manic energy, and living high on someone else's hog. She also manages to imply - perhaps without meaning to - that they are rather fun.

Her play collapses rather than ends - the first act with an obscene rap-song difficult to follow, but notable for its four-letterism, and the second act with a Tory anthem to Thatcher's election victory called: "Five More Glorious Years."

I am a great admirer of Churchill's plays, and I find it wonderfully ironic, and perhaps apt, that her first genuine, copper-bottomed financial success should be with an inferior play all about insider-trading.

What makes this even more surprising is that Churchill, a writer with a normally impeccable ear for speech and character, should have elected to have written this farrago mostly in childish and campy rhyming couplets that add juvenile skittishness to the proceedings rather than satiric conviction.

The staging by the Royal Court's artistic director, Max Stafford-Clark, and the mod-tech and ingenious scenery and smart costumes by Peter Hartwell have been retained intact, and although a few - very, very few - changes have been made from the original published text, the whole play remains much as it was.

Apart from the performance. For the fire has gone out from the already sagging belly of the play.

The American cast struggles very gamely with accent and style - but few of them are to the manner, or the manor, born.

Kate Nelligan, as both a smilingly sinister high-risk arbitrageur and low-risk top-class financial adviser, turns in a terrific although over-contrived performance, and John Pankow scores heavily as a marauding American intruder on the London scene.

As for the others, apart from a moderately disastrous performance from Melinda Mullins as the dead trader's hard-edged sister, everyone offers at the very least adequate replacement performances of the English actors they are replacing.

But significantly, the one holdover from the London cast, the quicksilver and virtuosic Allan Corduner stands out like a fast-rising stock in an otherwise mediocre portfolio.

New York Post

New York Times: "Serious Money"

In its transfer to Broadway's Royale Theater, Caryl Churchill's ''Serious Money'' retains its vituperative sense of humor. This is a neo-Restoration comedy crossed with a Jacobean revenger's tale. As the author indicates, with all malice intended, there is no end to greed.

The shenanigans of ''Serious Money'' center on the City, London's financial domain, but, as the play circumnavigates the global theater, it appears to have a universal applicability. Wherever there is a distinction made between money and serious money, it should remain timely and impertinent.

However, with its overlapping dialogue, stock market slang and singsong verse, the comedy tends to confuse and can even alienate a theatergoer. The first 10 minutes, in particular, are cacophonous as the characters shout and outshout one another on the trading floor, a scene that is paralleled in Oliver Stone's movie ''Wall Street,'' an altogether less provocative descent into the money maelstrom.

By the second, or, in my case, the third time, that one sees the play, the devious plot begins to achieve a focus, although it never becomes entirely straightforward. As a tip, keep your eye on Jake Todd, who will soon be dead, although alive again in flashback, and on his sleuthing sister Scilla. With ''Serious Money,'' ours is not to reason why but to watch - and enjoy - the wherefore, to see how the rich become even richer while vying for green power.

Even in its London original, the play was always partly mid-Atlantic, swinging between stock exchanges and featuring two major characters from our side. There is the crafty Marylou Baines, an arbitrager who is, we are told, second only to Ivan Boesky. In the epilogue, it is announced that Marylou runs for President in 1996 (what's her platform?). Telling the story of ''Serious Money'' is the American wheeler-banker, Zackerman. One advantage of the Broadway production, as redirected by Max Stafford-Clark, is that there is now an American Zackerman, John Pankow. His English predecessor, though a good actor, seemed as American as Crocodile Dundee. Mr. Pankow, who is one of our more versatile young character actors, zealously incarnates this engaging opportunist.

On Broadway, Kate Nelligan assumes the role of Marylou Baines and two others previously played by Linda Bassett and equals her fierce intensity. Ms. Nelligan, who is Canadian and therefore bilingual (American and English) has a comic zest that has hitherto been under wraps in her dramatic career, except for the dinner party scene in ''Plenty.'' This time Ms. Nelligan savors her own wickedness - and we do, too - and, as another character, is also a clownish sight with a big plaid bow in her hair. A third asset is Allan Corduner, the sole holdover from the English cast, and an actor adroit at playing cabinet ministers as well as stockjobbers and backstabbers. He has been in the play since it first opened at the Royal Court Theater and is totally in accord with the author's attitude of cold, calculating sincerity.

In other roles, the new cast lacks the precision of the earlier company. The accents of the American actors are on a par with those of their English cousins, but Alec Baldwin and Michael Wincott, for two, miss the Churchillian malevolence. Mr. Baldwin plays Billy Corman, the takeover pirate, with a growl that is no substitute for the character's original roar. Mr. Wincott's Jake Todd courts blandness. At this stage, Mr. Stafford-Clark's production is not as taut as the version at the Public Theater.

There have been several minor alterations in the text. The white knight (now played by Melinda Mullins) has moved from the North of England to the American Southwest, with no appreciable change in sentiment. And a reference to the Wall Street crash that was written for, but never inserted in, the Public Theater production makes it to Broadway.

For those who have not seen ''Serious Money'' before, the new production may prove to be an eye-opener, entreating one to share in the author's mirthful condemnation of those dedicated to their own self-interest.

New York Times

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