Victory Gardens Theater

In Affluenza! James Sherman has created a Moliere play for our times, marrying social satire to rhymed couplets in a comedy of (bad) manners. Though occasionally the playwright’s reach exceeds his grasp, overall this is a clever and delightful piece of theater.

All the stock Moliere characters are here–the foolish old man, the wise servant, the deceiver, the scheming wife, the wastrel, the innocent. And all are out for whatever they can get. The plot is simple: wealthy old William has fallen for young Dawn, threatening the inheritance hopes of his son, Jerome, and the alimony prospects of his ex-wife, Ruth. Nephew Eugene secretly longs for Dawn himself, while manservant-steward Bernard looks on with amusement, regularly intervening when his “betters” get tangled in their own contrivances.

Like Moliere, Sherman comments not only on the stupidity and cupidity of his characters but also on their corrupted milieu: the setting may be a Lake Shore Drive high-rise the day before yesterday (or the day after tomorrow), but the greedy look much the same as they did three and a half centuries ago in France. And like Moliere, Sherman also makes larger political and cultural points. When Jerome defends his disdain for work, he points to the fine example of our current president, providing details about the Texas Rangers and Harkin Oil. The playwright also has fun with the contemporary apotheosis of acquisitiveness, addiction to eBay. Jerome–whose credo is “You’re born alone, you die alone / But while you live, you’re what you own”–spends his time visiting auction sites, purchasing a platinum Slinky, a trumpet he can’t play, and even a virtual weapon for a computer game. Ruth hopes to get $300,000 for plastic surgery from her ex, which comes in for its fair share of comment, as does the false solicitousness of those who claim their servants are just like family: when Ruth thoughtfully asks Bernard how his mother is, he replies that she’s been dead for ten years.

The production could hardly be better. Under Dennis Zacek’s direction, David New is superb as the fop Jerome, handling the verse with such ease that he should consider tackling the real thing. (He’s oddly awkward physically, however, as though his tuxedo were too tight or the furniture too small.) Ian Westerfer is adorable as his cousin and sidekick and does a particularly fine job of introducing the audience to the play’s conceit by delivering the traditional turn-off-your-pagers speech in lilting verse. As Bernard, Cedric Young is outstanding: he combines the polished tact of the perfect servant with the weary patience of the zookeeper and manages to keep his distance from the ludicrous goings-on without becoming smug or annoying.

Richard Henzel as the elderly William makes a fine victim, so stubborn and willfully blind it’s easy to root for his opponents, and with his wild hair and disheveled dressing gown, he seems to have come straight from a French farce. As Ruth, Roslyn Alexander–a veteran of Sherman’s more conventional works–rises to the new occasion, savvy and avaricious in equal parts. The weak link is Kim Wade: she’s not merely unpersuasive but actually boring as the innocent Dawn, then swings much too far the other way (though to comic effect) when this gold digger shows her true colors. To be fair, though, Dawn has some of the least interesting lines, and the playwright further undermines the character by using her first scene with William to call attention to his own versifying skill, piling rhyme upon ridiculous rhyme.

It’s hardly cricket to complain that Sherman isn’t Moliere, but that simple fact poses a bit of a problem for Affluenza! Sherman doesn’t always succeed at the difficult task of producing rhyming lines with a single rhythm that don’t degenerate into doggerel: the man behind me described the piece as “Moliere Meets Dr. Seuss.” The dialogue works best when one person’s rhyme completes another’s, just to vary the rhythm. It’s an even bigger problem when the rhyming actually fails, as it does for a stretch at the start of act two: these couplets hurt the ear, by then accustomed to perfect patter.

There’s also one serious failure of judgment in the dialogue. While Dawn’s meretricious nature is essential to the plot, Sherman gives Jerome an overwhelming list of crude epithets to describe her, beginning with “ho” and moving on to “bitch” and “tenderoni”–in fact nearly every demeaning slang term for a woman short of “cunt.” Though the speech clearly represents the character’s misogyny rather than the playwright’s, some words just can’t be used to comic effect. Sherman might also reconsider employing the Yiddish rachmones in the play’s punch line–it’s unlikely the audience will know it means “compassion.” And the final set of couplets, advising us to be nice to grocery baggers, is a bit homiletic.

But these are quibbles about an entertaining, well-constructed evening providing some food for thought. Go ahead: eat, enjoy!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.