Arts in LA Review
Published 01/25/2014 in Arts in LA
Any work of art is most appropriately examined for how it will stand up in time, how future generations will view the circumstances people endured during the era when it was first presented. With that in mind, it’s hard not to wonder if playwright Kos Kostmayer and the production team that originally mounted his On the Money at the Victory Theatre Center 30 years ago contemplated how relevant the piece would be three decades later. Kostmayer’s jarringly caustic comedy, exploring the desperation of people forced into a dangerous corner while trying to earn a decent living and keep themselves alive, might be even more germane in 2014, an era when ruthless greed and Tea Party politics have widened the economic divide between the haves and the have-nots more clearly than ever before in our lifetimes.
The play follows a dark day in the lives of three employees of a comfy Manhattan bar, each of whom is in desperate financial trouble for his or her own personal reasons. Beginning the day with waitress Nancy (Maria Tomas) getting mugged on her way to work, her gambling-addicted cohort Benny (David Fraioli) losing at the track, and good-natured bartender Jack (Jonathan Kells Phillips) wondering if his floundering acting career will ever be enough to take care of his young family, the tension and anxiety radiating from Kostmayer’s trio of blue-collar everymen is palpable right from the very start.
What unfolds is the planning and disastrous results of a toxic scheme hatched by the shifty, ever-twitching Benny to have a less-than-savory friend of a friend rob the place that evening and share the spoils, just after their abusive boss (Vincent Guastaferro) returns with the day’s cash proceeds from his other three other neighborhood watering holes. Along the way, a series of colorful loonies drops in for alcoholic fortification and, perhaps, a little dollop of human compassion. As our heroes talk themselves into Benny’s folly, they’re interrupted by a series of rag-tag locals, including a rambling cowboy off his meds (Jeff Kober) and a quietly slimy loan shark (Tony Maggio) sniffing around for Jack’s late payment.
What’s most arresting about Kostmayer’s sometimes ominous, surprisingly hilarious study of the lengths basically good people go to when struggling to keep from drowning in the cesspool of the tragically waterlogged American dream is how quickly the conflict escalates—and how fast everything in the lives of these people goes to hell. A heap of this timely revival’s success can obviously be attributed to the gritty, tautly wound direction of Tom Ormeny and his stellar cast, each emoting with passion and skill on D Martyn Bookwalter’s beautifully detailed set.
Although on opening night some of the players seemed to still be finding their sea legs, perhaps initially working a little too hard to be totally at ease in their characters’ skins, by the second act everyone had settled in completely, each and every one contributing remarkable performances that could define what ensemble acting is all about. Kober and Maggio are particularly arresting in their portrayals, both exquisite veteran actors able to find layers and layers of subtle nuance in what could otherwise be glaringly stereotypical roles.
Above everything, of course, is Kostmayer’s tightly wound rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, which loudly trumpets an almost logical explanation as to why these people have chosen such a dastardly means to pull themselves out of their individual jams. It somehow makes us want to shout to them not to do it, and we would be right to try to stop it, although the ending, no matter how the failure of the employees’ plan might be expected, is still a bombshell.
If anything might be changed from 30 years ago, it might be in pruning. There’s a lot of repetition in the script about people getting money, needing money, hating money, not to mention hating those who have it, all of which could be eliminated—along with the 1980s-style need for an intermission. If any play could run seamlessly from first lights up to final shocker without a pee break and quick gulp of Two-Buck Chuck, it’s Kostmayer’s in-your-face On the Money.