Econo-Manic Depression: A Crash Course About the Coming Crash

MansLaughter Theatre

at Stage Left Theatre

Girl Gone

Green Highway Theater

at Stage Left Theatre

By Justin Hayford

At a time when American theater’s gaze has moved from the horizon to the navel, Peter Bernstein’s late-night one-man show, Econo-Manic Depression: A Crash Course About the Coming Crash, is a breath of fresh air. Structured as a series of lectures on market economics, this all-too-brief hour-long show features Bernstein as Professor Pettibone Daniels, explaining the driving forces behind the American sociopolitical system, guiding us through an absurd, heartless, profit-mad world where making a buck is tantamount to achieving sainthood. His wit and ingenuity are almost enough to make you forget how sobering the show’s message is.

Bernstein’s world is the same one repeatedly dramatized by the great moralist David Mamet: something of Mamet stirs in Professor Daniels. Superficially he’s cut from a different cloth altogether, lacking the steely, ruthless intensity of a typical Mamet character–Daniels is as noncommittal as a shifting wind. In an untucked flannel shirt and barely pressed chinos, he slouches behind a lectern or saunters about the stage spouting bits of canned wisdom as though he’d taught this course 100 times before, each time to students who were less enthusiastic. Like a fair number of college professors I’ve known, he displays neither a burning desire to teach nor a burning desire to do anything else.

Daniels’s Mamet-esque edge is apparent whenever he talks about the profit motive–which he does almost nonstop. It seems to be the only motive worth considering when trying to understand the world–or trying to envision a better one. Quoting his onetime mentor Professor Horatio Ishmael Hart (who fired Daniels for taking bribes from his students, even though he was simply obeying the directives of a free market), Daniels asserts that the chaos on the Titanic could have been averted if a profit-driven market had allocated places on the lifeboats. “To call 800 lifeboat seats for 2,200 passengers a ‘shortage’ is a gross misunderstanding of economic theory,” he says. On that cold North Atlantic night 86 years ago, the sensible solution would have been to allow the price of a seat on a lifeboat to rise until it equaled demand. Poof: no tragedy, just economic efficiency. Daniels sees no moral dilemma in a system that allows the rich to survive while the poor drown. “Fair? What’s fair? Some people in this country are so poor they don’t have to pay any income tax. Is that fair?”

Like many mainstream economic forecasters, Daniels sees the accumulation of wealth as the driving power behind human endeavors–even when that explanation is absurd. For example, he tells us that when social security was created in 1933, “the average 65-year-old was dead.” Today that person can expect to live to 82. “This is a clear example of the power of economic incentive,” he concludes. “Let’s face it, if you’re going to pay people just to stay alive, that’s precisely what they’ll do.” And while some argue that sacrificing part of every paycheck to social security is a bad investment, Daniels can guarantee a 12.5 percent return. All you’ve got to do is live to the age of 137.

Daniels’s absurd logic, which ignores any factor not directly tied to economic growth, is chillingly familiar, especially as applied to the global economy. Daniels tells us about teaching in Haiti at the height of its recent political upheaval, seeing it as “a country crying out for a course in economics…although just try to get any photocopying done during a revolution.” He points out that the country’s poverty wages and lack of environmental and safety standards are “assets in today’s global market.” He’s not much concerned about the murder of a great number of his students either–he’s focused instead on finding a strong export to save the Haitian economy. He believes he’s hit pay dirt with Haitian baseballs, which travel farther than their American counterparts. He projects a grand success: a 5 percent increase in the Haitian economy, allowing that country to reach the American standard of living by the year 2400. An added bonus: higher-scoring baseball games back home.

It’s clear from all of Daniels’s musings that only one incentive is more powerful than profit: self-interest. His economic theories all rest on the importance of personal gain–as opposed to, say, equitable distribution. “When economists say we’re operating at full employment,” he explains, “they mean full employment for economists.” Even a “fiery Armageddon” would be “bullish for bonds,” as the good (read “the wealthy”) are left to manage the estates of the freshly liquidated wicked. The best plan, he argues, would be a “soft Armageddon” orchestrated by the Federal Reserve, so that even the marginally wicked could reap some benefits.

Bernstein delivers his blistering satire in perfect imitation of a college professor, trapped between entertaining and instructing his pupils. Actually, it’s not an imitation at all–Bernstein has taught economics at DePaul since 1992. “I’m always standing up in front of a group of strangers and lecturing,” he explained after the show. “This is just more of the same.” Thankfully Bernstein feels no need to act, and he’s spent no time refining Econo-Manic Depression. In fact, he’s about as green as a performer can get: on opening night he had to turn his back to the crowd on two occasions when he cracked himself up. But his lack of polish gives the piece a giddy verisimilitude.

At base, it seems that Bernstein sees market economics as nothing but an elaborate scam, the kind of scam that sent the price of a single tulip to $5,000 in 17th-century Holland. Letting his Professor Daniels character drop briefly, he tells us that people paid that much for flowers only because they thought they could sell them for twice the price. In case anyone misses the parallel between 400-year-old tulips and our current stock market, which has increased in “value” tenfold in 15 years, he’s posted graphs around the theater and in the program showing the market’s historical tendency to plummet after a steep rise. Considering that Forbes magazine lauded the “heroic scale” of U.S. economic growth just four months before the 1929 crash, you can only hope that every economic forecaster in the country takes Bernstein’s course.

Prime time at Stage Left is occupied by Green Highway Theater’s Girl Gone, a play that takes us deep into the heart of theatrical irrelevance. Up-and-coming exotic dancer Tish spends her time bonding with a cadre of hyperstereotypical strippers until her mentor, Jean, is mysteriously murdered. Tish then grows obsessed with finding Jean’s killer, though in truth she does little more than point at various people and ask, “Did you do it?” Finally she goes off the deep end into apparent paranoid psychosis.

For some unfathomable reason, Jacquelyn Reingold has created a murder mystery without a shred of suspense, intrigue, or–well, mystery. Following the lead of much American theater inspired by television, she structures the play as a series of 90-second scenes, jumping back and forth in time, in and out of various realities, until her house of cards simply caves in. A trio of fellow strippers–one jaded, one money hungry, one naive–appears in almost every scene, although nothing they do affects the action. Most problematic, Reingold gives us little sense of Tish’s world, and even less of the bond that ties her so desperately to Jean. After almost two hours of short, punchy scenes, Reingold brings Tish and the alleged killer together for an interminable confrontation that makes no sense whatsoever.

Hard as it is to imagine, Green Highway turns in some strong work with this antiscript. Although the male cast members seem a bit lost, the women–led by a mercurial Kim Kramer as Tish–make Reingold’s stereotypes believable. The play eventually collapses into overdramatic trivia, but at least the actors do their damnedest to prop it up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Econo-Manic Depression theater still by Steven E. Gross; Girl Gone theater still by Liz Winter.