“I bought the Armani when the Banana Republic looked just fine,” confesses a middle-aged guy, weary from chronic extravagance. One nervous wreck of a spendthrift decides to destroy all her credit cards but balks when it comes to her indispensable MasterCard. In an expiatory frenzy, an African American woman takes a pair of scissors to the Prada sweater she really couldn’t afford in the first place. (“Giving it away,” she explains, “would be like passing on a virus.”)
Is this a performance piece or an evening at Debtors Anonymous? The short answer is both. A program note describes Marty Pottenger’s Abundance as “a community arts project about money and America” (see abundanceproject.net for details). Based on interviews and workshops with everyday citizens (ranging from millionaires to undocumented workers), the civic-minded production employs an ensemble of six, who impersonate a number of characters in serious financial straits.
Recovery is the name of the game, but talk about bad timing. The issue addressed—living larger than your means—is one that most of us would prefer not be reminded of so soon after the holidays (and right in the middle of the January sales). Yes, the piece should probably be required viewing for all Manhattan denizens earning less than six figures while acting like they’re closing in on seven. But (inserting fingers in ears) denial runs deepest in those most dangerously afflicted.
Seriously, my resistance has more to do with aesthetics than with sloppy finances. Abundance wants to get us talking about a subject that apparently carries even more psychological baggage than sex. (La, la, la—fingers back in ears.) Noble as this outreach impulse is, the clobbering preachiness quashes the imaginative resources at hand. An Obie-winning dance-theater innovator, Pottenger relies too much on therapeutic words and too little on imagistic movement to persuasively make her case onstage. The instances when she does allow her pictorial instincts to flourish—the scene where two men in custodial garb sweep a mess of junk food across the floor; another in which an actor runs alongside a screen image of an expansively pure American wheat field—are crowded out by self-help droning.
None of the competent actors transcend the earnest material. The most one can say is that they remain committed to their mission of enlightening in an educational-theater way. What’s needed, however, is a deeper synthesis of the cultural conditions that leave us in perpetual need of a consumer fix. Perhaps Pottenger will soon distill her sociological discoveries into artistic patterns that can diagnose the source of our bankrupting cravings.