Love and Money
A.R. Gurney pens a light summer comedy about two subjects near and dear to everyone.
You can tell what a gracious host A.R. Gurney is by his plays. There's something for everyone, whether you go to the theater to be challenged or just to have a few laughs. As with a really great party, no one feels bored or uncomfortable. That is certainly true in his latest play, Love and Money, now making its New York City premiere at Signature Theatre. It is a buoyant comedy that also contains some startlingly shrewd observations about wealth, the nature of trust, and the prospect of aging with dignity.
Signature has been on something of a Gurney kick recently, having produced two revivals (The Wayside Motor Inn and What I Did Last Summer) in the past year (he's one of the company's many playwrights in residence). Love and Money is the author's first new play since 2013's Family Furniture (which premiered at the Flea Theater). Like the greater part of Gurney's oeuvre, Love and Money exists in a world of rare books, fine china, and gleefully distracted conversation — in other words, the natural habitat of the American WASP.
Judging from her well-appointed surroundings, Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) is unfathomably rich. Art covers the walls of her gorgeous Manhattan brownstone (handsomely crafted in glorious detail by Michael Yeargan). Light streams into her study from a giant bay window (comfortingly warm lighting by Stephen Strawbridge). Cornelia is so "old money," she still has an Irish maid named Agnes (the hilariously world-weary Pamela Dunlap).
Of course, she's also a major philanthropist for progressive causes, giving generously to Amnesty International and Save the Children. Referring to the lefty magazine The Nation, she remarks, "I never read it, but I agree with everything it says." Harboring major guilt about her lavish wealth, she's determined to give most of it away before she dies.
That plan runs into a major snag when her attorney, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik), informs her that a man is claiming to be her long-lost grandson from a deceased daughter. He could contest Cornelia's will and throw the estate into litigation for years. That man, Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown), turns out to be an exceedingly charming young African-American with a Gatsby obsession (all his friends call him "Scott," for F. Scott Fitzgerald). Cornelia certainly doesn't want to hand her money over to greedy grandchildren, but she can't help but soak in Scott's allure. (He knows the whole Cole Porter songbook by heart!) Where is Maury Povich when you need him?
Gurney's text teems with sparkling bons mots. His characters fill up the stage like 21st-century commedia stock characters: the socialist one-percenter, the itchy lawyer son of immigrants, the Obama clone, and the sassy Asian-American drama student. That last one mentioned is Jessica (Kahyun Kim), a character whose only purpose seems to be to sing the Porter classic "Make It Another Old Fashioned Please" and to call BS on Scott's story. Kim does both of these things beautifully, with a breezy confidence.
Anderman leads the five-person cast in uniformly excellent performances. She plays Cornelia with a feigned dottiness that barely masks the fact that she is a keen judge of character. She keeps the emotional impact of a series of painful life experiences neatly tucked away. Paulik's Harvey is prickly and pugnacious, prepared to trip anyone he sees skipping rungs up the ladder of prosperity. Brown lends Scott a winning smile and hungry drive to succeed. He wears a preppy suit from Men's Warehouse with a smartly selected lavender shirt and tie (beautifully understated costumes by Jess Goldstein). He looks and acts like he's attending a luncheon at a Westchester country club. You probably won't believe a word he says, even if you really want to.
Under the even-handed direction of Mark Lamos, all of these characters are as ridiculous as they need to be (and as most people truly are) without veering into SNL-style parody. There's a distinct humanity about all of them. It's a testament to Gurney's mastery of craft that he is able to ground his over-the-top comedy in a palpable truth.
Gurney also has the ability to gently push an audience to examine its biases. For instance, Is Scott the real deal or a gifted con man? How you answer that question has the potential to say a lot about you, but Gurney refuses to pass judgment on you for that answer. And why should he? Ultimately, we're all at the theater to have a good time, which you definitely will with Love and Money.