“Greed’s been good to me!” crows Jake (Mat Nakitare), a young trader in Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, now revived by PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage II. Certainly, greed was good to Churchill, providing the material for this blissfully cruel satire of 1980s London. Churchill’s take is fizzy as champagne, noxious as cyanide. Subtitled A City Comedy, and composed largely in couplets and quatrains, it both pays homage to a jaded 17th-century literary form and critiques a modern financial one, the explosion of the financial services industry in Thatcherite London.
But PTP’s co-artistic director Cheryl Faraone is only somewhat good to Churchill—or to greed. To her credit, she manages a large cast on what is likely a tiny budget and helps them find their rhythmic way through Churchill’s playfully vulgar poetry. The plot is tough to follow even on the page: a twinned narrative of an attempted hostile takeover and a trader’s suicide (or is it murder?). If Faraone doesn’t do much to clarify the story, perhaps Churchill doesn’t want it overly clear. Scilla (Tara Giordano), our morally dubious stockbroker heroine, celebrates the joyous disorder of the trading floor: “It’s like playing a cross between roulette and Space Invaders.”
More worryingly, the production looks cheap, a problem with a script so emphasizing excess. While there are some gestures to the ’80s in terms of costume and make-up, it neither feels fully a period piece nor does it resonate with the financial world of today as much as it ought to. Typical of PTP, the performances are varied to the point of distraction. Some are expert (David Barlow as a smiling Yank strategist, Megan Byrne as an unscrupulous arbitrageur), others dire.
The play boasts two musical numbers (with lusciously rude lyrics by Ian Dury), here reduced to spasmodic cabaret. As the actors shout “Quick! Prick! Yes! No! Cunt!” they jerk their bodies in parodies of trading-floor semaphore or orgasm. This awkward choreography reaps a titter from the audience, but it never really captures the sex-money-death collision that feeds the script. With its focus on egoism, aggression, immediacy, and blinkered thinking, Churchill’s play anticipates the crash of the late ’80s and our own 20 years on. But you won’t feel those consequences in the PTP version. Faraone highlights the play’s sneering appraisal of late capitalism, but not the dark heart that beats just beneath all the rollicking, bollocking bluster.