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Review: A Stock Market Crash Gets a Screwball Take in The Panic of '29

Graham Techler's riotous play with music is now running at 59E59 Theaters.

Olivia Puckett and Will Roland in Graham Techler's The Panic of '29, directed by Max Friedman, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Carol Rosegg)

We've all been a little anxious about our 401(k)s and other investments these days as the stock market bobs and weaves around us. That may be why Graham Techler's screwball take on the stock market crash of 1929 feels sort of apropos, and maybe a little bit needed — we could all use a laugh as our investments go down the toilet, and a reminder that it'll (probably) be all right in the end.

The Panic of '29 ain't no history lesson, though. It's a satire, an especially ludicrous one, that sometimes gets in the way of its own storytelling and goes off the rails as it races toward its unlikely conclusion. But Less Than Rent's production of this kooky play with music benefits enormously from a brilliant ensemble of young actors whose comic timing is spot-on. Prepare for a bevy of Wall Street big shots talking fast and cracking wise.

Brian Morabito plays loud, brash Richard Whitney, a VP of the New York Stock Exchange who brags about shvitzing with Herbert Hoover. His put-upon secretary Dot (Olivia Puckett) is in love with hack writer Jimmy Armstrong (Will Roland), who is just now realizing his lurid tales of murder are schlock. Eva (Joyelle Nicole Johnson) owns a cabaret called the Ruby Room where her innocent sister, Ingrid (Jaela Cheek-Lomax), bartends and where lounge singer Lady Generosity (Julia Knitel) dances and croons '20s-style numbers (clear, loungy sound design by Margaret Montagna).

Lady Generostiy's love interest, Officer Kent (Will Turner), is an Irish cop who is not opposed to busting heads when necessary but who knows how to woo her with poems about octopi. It's all boozing and big times until the stock market goes kablooey and Whitney leaps from a building, and everyone except Officer Kent ends up living in a shantytown.

Will Turner and Julia Knitel in The Panic of '29
(© Carol Rosegg)

Max Friedman's direction is a nonstop riot in scenes leading up to the Crash, with the one-liners coming fast and clicking like tickertape. But the story goes in a bizarre direction when, following the Crash, a killer (Rachel B. Joyce) starts shooting cops (Jared Loftin and R.J. Vaillancourt). Though Techler and Friedman keep things in a comedic vein, the atmosphere literally darkens (Jamie Roberick's lighting plunges the stage into shadows), and so does the humor, not always in a good way.

Things brighten up again in the second act as the action moves to Niagara Falls eight years later, where we find Eva and others living in a snow-bound lodge and receiving a visit from a stranger (apparently that Wall Street bigwig Richard Whitney jumped from a first-floor window) who wants to take the place over and make a fast buck. Then there's an atomic bomb explosion.

Yeah, that's right. By the end, it's hard to make much sense out of Techler's story, and maybe that's the point. History's nonsense tends to repeat itself, which may be why The Panic of '29 feels uncomfortably familiar. But that doesn't justify the show's nearly two and a half hours; a good 20 minutes could have been shaved off if all the one-line groaners had been sent over the falls in a barrel.

But the cast is stellar, and it's a marvel to see what Friedman has them do on 59E59's smallish Stage B. Friedman, who also designed the set, makes the most of it with two platforms that rise up on either side and facilitate quick scene changes, the center area acting as the cabaret space where the exceptionally talented Knitel (decked in Corina Chase's period-style costumes) sings throughout the show, sometimes accompanied by Turner on the guitar (Spencer Grubbe supervises music written by Barrett Riggins). Also, Roland's impeccable comic timing and delivery do wonders with even the worst jokes. It's performances like these that make The Panic of '29 a worthwhile diversion as we do our best getting through '22.

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