Legal Tender Is the Night

Marriage is a high-interest loan and payback's a bitch. Or so contends Where's My Money?, John Patrick Shanley's frayed web of entangling romantic alliances among two mercurial divorce lawyers and their snapdragon wives. It's something of a revenge play, complete with two accusatory ghosts, where retribution takes the form of cohabitation. These often hilariously frightful characters would rather fester under marital lock and key than relinquish the privilege of making each other miserable. One hubby snubs his sweetheart's bedroom come-on because he's deep into Crime and Punishment.

Money soils and warps every relationship. Henry (Labyrinth cofounder John Ortiz) and Natalie (Paula Pizzi) battle savagely over Natalie's desire for a joint bank account. The ghost of her former lover Hernan (Chris McGarry) appears to demand the return of some borrowed funds. Sidney (David Deblinger, channeling Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross) seethes with operatic hatred for his wife, Marcia Marie (Florencia Lozano), a grasping materialist who measures the success of her marriage in terms of "goods and services." But here, avarice is a symptom of the human stain, not the disease itself. The characters share a mania for evening the score, and cash is the most convenient index. "You are a check that you never endorsed," says Marcia Marie, the play's Lady Macbeth, ironically clad in a lily-white frock and screeching until she's red in the face. Indeed, cabin fever overheats everyone's system—the two couples live in identical, claustrophobic bedrooms in which the floor slants, the door's too low and the bed child-sized.

The ping and sting of Edward Albee occasionally pops up in the verbal fusillade, but Shanley's kissing cousin here is Neil LaBute—orations of virtuosic cruelty fly in every direction. Taken one by one, the ripostes glint, shimmer, even draw blood instead of bile. Everyone's an antagonist, save sweet, woebegone Celeste (Yetta Gottesman), an old friend whom Natalie spots at a café in the first scene and energetically proceeds to eviscerate. Shanley is a better comic and has a lighter touch than LaBute, though he directs his actors to histrionic pitches that none of them can quite sustain. People suck, sure, but Where's My Money?, from its straightforward title on down, is matter-of-fact about this truism and free of moralizing.

Hello cruel world
photo: Joan Marcus
Hello cruel world

Details

Where's My Money?
By John Patrick Shanley
Presented by the Labyrinth Theater Company
CenterStage
48 West 21st Street 212-905-0593

All the same, once Sidney declares that Marcia Marie is "a bag of shit and I have to hold my nose to fuck her," the rudderless misanthropy has found its bitter end. (Celeste is the only sympathetic character here, thus swiftly dispensed with.) Five scenes in search of a sixth, the play upbraids and then abandons most of its malcontents like a fed-up spouse. (The presence of literal phantoms signifies an inescapable past, yet Shanley forgets about them midway through.) The play does reserve some semblance of reckoning for one chosen couple, who abruptly call a cease-fire, dissolving into cathartic tears and rhetorical parrying on the nature of love. Does Shanley intend this perplexing finale as a glimmer of hope—or a last nasty joke? His play wants to have its poisoned wedding cake and eat it too, but Where's My Money? ends up devoured by its own acid wit.

 
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