At the end of “Money Lab,” the entertaining and enlightening “economic vaudeville” playing too briefly at The Brick Theater, one of the performers led us in a hymn to money. “Turn to page five of your tax returns please,” she said, and then delivered a melody that sounds ever so much like a psalm, though the lyrics are from the IRS.
But “Money Lab” does not ask us to worship money. It encourages us to think about it. Conceived by Edward Einhorn, the artistic director of Untitled Theater Company No. 61, the show includes an inventive mix of offerings. There are monologues and skits: One of them, The Ditch Digger, written– completely accessibly–by the influential economist John Maynard Keynes! There is an interpretive dance entitled “Dead Cat Bounce,” performed in front of a dizzying montage of TV talking heads spouting economic jargon during the 2008 fiscal crisis.
Most instructive, though, are the games and auctions. We are asked at the outset to spend $5 to purchase a packet of ten chips, five of them blue, five of them red. Host Clive Dobbs explains that the red chips represent the necessities of life – and, for the purposes of the show, that means food. The blue chips are for purchasing things “that edify the soul.” There was a table with snacks and various books, which we could purchase (with our red or blue chips) at any time during the show.
A blackboard listed the currency exchange. When the show began, both red and blue chips were valued at 50 cents. The exchange rate changed depending on how much value the audience of roughly 50 theatergoers valued each. This was determined by the auctions — which alternated between blue-chip kind of prizes (a plant, a book, etc.) and red-chip (snacks, coins, and so on) — and the games.
In one of the games, a coin flip determined which of two volunteers got a bag of 10 chips. Volunteer A then was asked how many of the chips he was willing to give to Volunteer B. He said three. Volunteer B had the option of accepting the three, or rejecting them, which would result in neither volunteer getting any of the chips. Volunteer B rejected A’s offer of three chips. They went back to their seats empty-handed.
“This shows us the value of spite,” Dobbs said.
We had been told that if we held onto our ten chips, we would get our five dollars back at the end. But as the currency began to favor the blue chips, I figured that I would sell all of my blue chips at the currency table, to purchase more red chips, and get some chocolate. The problem with my investment plan was that the value of the blue chips kept going up and the red down; I hadn’t thought this out. The final auction was to pay a theater artist for an hour of his creative time (“He can create what he wants during that hour; you have no control over it; you can’t ask him to write a memoir about your mother.”) The end result was a final bid of a whopping 125 blue chips. By the end of “Money Lab,” the blue chips were each worth 83 cents, and the red chips just 17 cents.
“You people value art and beauty,” Clive Dobbs told the crowd. I was seeing red.*
Money Lab: An economic vaudeville examining the intersections between economic theory and art, by Untitled Theater Company No. 61, will be performed through August 10, 2013 at The Brick Theater (579 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn NY: Take the L train to Lorimer; it’s right there.) Tickets are $15. Chips are $5.
*Since the prices of the snacks and books, in red chips or blue chips, did not fluctuate, I actually got my five dollars worth of chocolate even though my chips were officially now worth under two dollars.