Court Theatre

We Americans are a trusting people. As a group, I mean. We have all this naive faith in the basic benignity of our government, our institutions, our way of doing things. In spite of everything, I mean. When Oliver Stone wants to attack the culture of greed in Wall Street, for instance, he doesn’t get all political about it. He doesn’t debunk capitalism. He doesn’t indict Reaganism or the corporate structure. No, he takes the rotten-apple approach, offering us Michael Douglas as a financial renegade, a Mephistophelean schmuck who loots the system and corrupts decent lads like Charlie Sheen–and whose ultimate, inevitable downfall at the hands of an aroused SEC (i.e., the cavalry) makes everything all right.

The British are a little different. As a group, I mean. What with a House of Lords and a House of Commons–and a queen, for chrissake–class war’s a tradition with them. They seem to understand the politics of money. They seem to realize that greed’s not just a sin but a system. And they seem to know that behind every obscenely successful man there’s a Thatcherite government, goading him on.

Which is one of several reasons why, while we’re turning out cowardly duds like Wall Street–full of evasions, lousy with unacknowledged politics–they can come up with something as perfectly, as provocatively, nasty as Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money.

Serious Money covers pretty much the same territory as Wall Street: it’s all about greed among the big-time money changers. But where Stone’s movie works so hard to restrict the blame to that rotten Douglas character, Churchill’s farce spreads it around: carefully tracing it from this London trader to that American banker to the other Peruvian investor to the next Conservative cabinet minister, and so on, until not only has everyone in the play been implicated, but the network of connections between them–the political economy of their greed–has been made damningly clear.

Churchill even dips a little into their genealogy. Serious Money opens with an interlude from Thomas Shadwell’s 17th-century satire, The Volunteers, or The Stockjobbers, in which a trader named Hackwell, plotting with his cronies over various inventions and enterprises, points out that the validity of those inventions and enterprises is absolutely immaterial–just so long as they turn a penny.

From there the play jumps forward 300 years to present-day London, where Jake Todd, a young commercial paper dealer with powerful friends, has turned up dead. The death’s given out to be a suicide, motivated by Jake’s shame at having come under investigation by the DTI, Britain’s SEC; but his high-powered sister, Scilla, knows that Jake was too amoral to feel shame or anything else. She suspects foul play. She smells money. And–more for the sake of the money than for her brother–she investigates, wending her way through the slimy dealings of various Boesky manques who lie, cheat, and steal like crazy, producing nothing while savaging productive, companies in order to turn a penny.

Churchill’s gleefully vicious. As vicious as her subject. As vicious as Oliver Stone is meek. Where Stone gives us Hal Holbrook playing a solid old-line broker who champions the virtues of honor, trust, caution, and rectitude in business, Churchill’s parallel character is a marginal man who drinks too much and willingly betrays his oldest friend. Where Stone propounds a tender relationship between the Charlie Sheen character and his proletarian daddy, Churchill’s got Scilla telling her old da to fuck off. And where Stone glorifies the SEC as an agent of justice, Churchill portrays the DTI as a creature of Thatcherite policy.

Everything and everyone is rotten in Serious Money. From bottom to top, from past to present, the whole capitalist setup stinks. Churchill shows just how much, and why.

Terry McCabe’s greatest triumph in directing this Court Theatre production is his casting–particularly casting Linda Emond, against type, as Scilla. Emond has an attractive and generous presence onstage. You like her, and you want to like her. Watching her as Scilla, I kept expecting her good nature to prevail over the character’s appalling shittiness. But it never did. The effect was marvelously disconcerting and thoroughly appropriate.

Tom Mula demonstrates a quiet comic genius in several roles. Gerry Becker, Larry Russo, and Victoria Zielinski each manage to construct their own unique styles of turpitude as various rotters. Ned Schmidtke is vivid, if a little too rangy, as an American banker named Zackerman.

McCabe’s greatest problem is that, in trying to make the play move as fast as it should–which is to say very–he’s succeeded only in making it shrill. Except in Mula’s case, the doubling and tripling up on roles creates a sense of raggedness rather than hysteria. Still, McCabe’s staging of two big songs (“We’re crossing forbidden frontiers, we’re sniding beneath our veneer / Pissed and promiscuous, the money’s ridiculous”) is lovely in its boisterous, evil way. So’s Churchill’s script.

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