Gold Diggers 2004

Now that the holiday season has descended upon us, theatergoers as well as producers are faced with the dilemma of "classic" shows. Should we surrender to tradition and go with the tried and true or attempt to buck the trend? Coral Gables's New Theatre deftly solves this dilemma by presenting James Sherman's Affluenza!, a new, edgily up-to-date play that reaches back to the classic past. Sherman's witty farce skewers the greedy, grasping machinations of one wealthy family in modern-day Chicago but makes its points with rhyming verse and a farcical plot line that, in style and substance, is an homage to the satirical comedies of Molière.

The story line is as classic as you can get. Sherman's tale takes place in a swank, high-rise apartment looking out on Chicago's lakefront. Wealthy William Moore (Gene Bunge), a divorced patriarch, takes up with a sweet young thing named Dawn (Heather Gallagher) in a December/May romance that seems innocent and charming. But his conniving son, Jerome (Michael McKeever), suspects Dawn's a gold digger out to gain the family fortune. Jerome's doltish cousin, Eugene (John Manzelli), who is sweet on Dawn himself, can't believe Jerome's nasty suspicions. Dawn seems too nice, too gosh-darn Midwestern, for anything underhanded. But sure enough, once she marries William, rosy Dawn promptly gives the finger to Jerome, openly gloating about her duplicity, thus prompting Jerome to enlist Eugene into a scheme to expose her.

Sherman, who had considerable success with his earlier Beau Geste, another traditionally structured comedy of deception and family scheming, appears to relish his new role as social satirist. Affluenza! is riddled with contemporary allusions, from Enron to Monica Lewinsky, and manages to land quite a number of barbed epigrams through its web of genteel and gentle good manners. The play demands verbal facility with several long speeches: William's selfish ex-wife (Carole Cortland) rhapsodizes about the joys of plastic surgery, and Jerome expounds at length on the need for wealthy fathers to help their dissolute sons, using the Bush family as a case in point. But the story also calls for some knockabout physical shtick. Director Stephen S. Neal handles both with aplomb; the text is clearly rendered and Neal's staging is effective. The actors are energetic and appealing, though most lack elocutionary ease and appear uncomfortable with the language and pacing demands of the text.

McKeever does well overall as Jerome, the disagreeably acquisitive heir apparent, displaying a strong sense of farcical style and pace. But he undercuts himself by starting nearly every line with a stutter, an ill-advised character choice in a verse play dependent on verbal rhythms. Similarly, Manzelli's arbitrary, self-imposed pauses, presumably intended to provide some naturalism to the linguistic artifice, result only in muddling the sense and the pace of what he's saying. Both actors tend to clump around the stage, adding noise and weight to a play that calls for effortless grace. Most effective is Marvin Gay as Bernard, William's loyal lifelong valet, who, again consistent with Molière, is the story's most trustworthy and honorable character. Gay's crystal-clear, grounded performance is a minilesson in effective acting. He has impeccable comic timing, a facility with the language, and the common sense to listen to what the other characters are saying. As the scheming, two-faced Dawn, Gallagher has the play's most difficult role; she must contrast her dewy ingénue pose with her true nature as a randy schemer. Her good-girl pose is bland and generalized, but she gets the schemer part right, a perfectly awful blend of wit and bad taste.

In fact, wit and bad taste are balanced throughout this show's physical production -- the elevator bell sounds like a cash register, and Eric Nelson bathes everything in the sickly green color of money. The production is also aided by a deliberately ghastly set design by McKeever (there he is again), a luxury apartment overdone in black marble and Corinthian columns, a neat demonstration of how, in Chicago as well as in Florida, wealth and bad taste can coexist.

A drama of another kind was going on last weekend in South Beach, where the Miami City Ballet's Nutcracker is being presented at the Jackie Gleason Theatre. This annual classic, a masterful balance of superb dancing and stunning visuals, pulled in a huge packed house for the Sunday matinee. But somehow, this did not include almost two-thirds of the house staff: Only 12 of 35 employees managed to show up, according to one usher. As might be expected, the staff that did report was overworked. Hundreds of patrons, unable to find the proper floor, let alone their seats, missed the opening curtain, and much of the first act was disrupted by a constant stream of befuddled latecomers. At intermission, a similar scene played out when the understaffed concession booths could not handle the crowds, and many frustrated showgoers returned to their seats empty-handed. While the performance was a treat, the lack of service from the theater staff was a new low. Note to Jackie Gleason management: If you can't rely on your staffers to report to work, replace them. If you can't find reliable staffers, replace yourselves.

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Ronald Mangravite

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