Kevin Townley and Arian Moyaedin Marco Millions (based on lies)
(© Andy Criss)
Kevin Townley and Arian Moyaed
in Marco Millions (based on lies)
(© Andy Criss)
When Marco Millions, Eugene O'Neill's sprawling satirical take on American materialism, broad-shouldered onto Broadway in 1928, it had a cast of 19, including 34-year-old Alfred Lunt. When it was revived in 1930, the troupe had swelled to 22. In 1964, the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center's resuscitation had just 13 ensemble members, including Hal Holbrook as Marco Polo. Now, the upstart and uproarious Waterwell group romps through Marco Millions (based on lies) -- which is billed as "adapted from the play by Eugene O'Neill" -- with only five madcap players: Hanna Cheek, Rodney Gardiner, Arian Moayed, Tom Ridgely (who also directed), and Kevin Townley. What a conglomerate discovery they are! This quintet not only has abundant talents to be unflaggingly cheeky, but to be bright, creative, and vastly rewarding.

Het up by money-mad businessmen bringing on the 1929 stock-market crash that he intuits but doesn't quite predict, O'Neill found in history's Marco Polo the emblematic figure he needed for poking 1920's greed in the ribs. He plundered the famous traveler's 13th-century memoir to create a multi-scene burlesque in which the acquisitive hero journeys to China and back with many stops. Along the Silk Road, Marco Polo ingratiates himself with the great Khan, introduces novelties like paper money, and escorts a death-fixated Princess to her far-flung fiancé. Curiously, even as the adventurer accumulates millions -- or nearly millions -- of all sorts of treasures, he comes off a calculating yet earnest guy, one who remains true to the sweetheart of his Venetian childhood.

Within the contours of comic exploration, O'Neill was engaging in something serious. But the Waterwell cut-ups -- who not only play all the characters (doubling, tripling and quadrupling on a dime), but also play themselves playing the play -- have their eyebrows more firmly arched and their tongues more tightly curled. They surely hope O'Neill's scathing points about heartless commerce and hypocritical religion will blaze through, but they also want to have fun just showing off. Using what they've heard about many of Polo's accounts possibly being inauthentic, they get a kick out of disseminating their own on-stage lies -- you know, the theatrical lies meant to be like truth. The resulting, often hilarious meta-theatre event recalls Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill at their youthfully nose-thumbing best.

A list of the clever notions dispensed on Dave Lombard's very basic set and under Stacey Biggs' often German-Expressionist lighting would run a couple of yards. At the top of the list would be reporting some of Marco Polo's peregrinations as if its footage from old Movietone News reels, employing four blue-grey umbrellas to suggest a rippling ocean, using the sleeve of a jacket as a snake hand puppet, and unleashing a precision love-triangle tango, nicely choreographed by Lynn Peterson.

But not everything is perfect. Some of the sophomoric humor is merely sophomoric. There's a song about money -- the lyric of which contains only the word "money" -- that overstays its welcome. And the show's ending, when it comes after about 90 minutes of high jinks, is unsatisfyingly abrupt.

Towards the enterprise's end, O'Neill himself (as impersonated by the intrepid Townley) makes a guest appearance. "I just dropped by to say what a terrific job these kids are doing. You know, when I was writing Marco Millions back in 1926, this is just the sort of thing I had in mind. So this production has my official stamp of approval," he confides. Indeed, by the time they've finished sending up Marco Polo, Eugene O'Neill, Wall-Street sharpies, theatrical conventions and the kitchen sink, audiences may conclude that even the real O'Neill might have given the offering a solid, deserving thumbs-up.