“Love and Money,” A.R. Gurney’s latest comedy about WASPs, is as deep as dust, and no more solid, but as dust goes, it’s a fine light powder, ground by a craftsman who’s been at it for some four decades, and it’s more likely to tickle than to irritate.
In a brownstone on the Upper East Side, Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) is packing up for a move to a fancy retirement community that she insists on calling a nursing home. At the same time, she is writing checks with a lot of zeroes; she has decided to give away all her considerable wealth to charity.
This does not sit well with her longtime law firm, which sends over Harvey (Joe Paulik), a young lawyer who might have better luck than her usual attorney in making her see reason. He introduces himself.
Cornelia: And your specialty is difficult old ladies?
Harvey: My specialty is Trusts and Estates.
Cornelia: I once knew a lawyer whose specialty was Murders and Impositions.
Harvey: I think you mean Mergers and Acquisitions, Mrs. Cunningham.
Eventually, Harvey gets to the point: She might have trouble giving away all her money to charity, because her two grandchildren could contest it (her two children are dead.) And, Harvey says, his firm just received a registered letter from somebody claiming to be her third grandchild. Shortly after Harvey’s announcement, the young man suddenly appears at the brownstone, having traveled all the way from his and Cornelia’s (and Gurney’s) hometown of Buffalo. Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown) turns out to be African-American; he claims his father had a secret affair with Cornelia’s daughter.
Harvey is convinced that Walker is a con man, and frankly, any sensible theatergoer would share Harvey’s skepticism, even those who haven’t seen John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation.” Gurney does little to eliminate our suspicions. Walker’s evidence is flimsy, his explanations are full of holes, he is well spoken to the point of slickness, and he is upfront about his interest in money – he says he’s normally called Scott, a nickname his high school teacher gave him because of his love for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
Scott: Fitzgerald was a great writer.
Cornelia: I’ll tell you this, my friend. He loved to write about money.
Scott: That’s exactly why I went for the guy. That’s why my teacher called me Scott.
Cornelia: Because you like money too?
Scott: I do. I go for it big time.
Without our willingness to believe Scott’s claim of familial connection, the plot of “Love and Money” is something of a bust. More fruitful is the theme – that money is a curse — one , Cornelia says, “that specifically affects my particular tribe,” by which she means White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (At one point, she agrees with Harvey’s suggestion that she’s a “self-hating WASP.”) It’s because of their wealth, Cornelia maintains, that both her children died young, and that both her grandchildren are spoiled. The stories she tells to back up her assertion (with the aid of her blunt-speaking long-time maid, Agnes) sometimes persuasively buttress her argument; sometimes they feel like a stretch. In either case, they offer little new nor especially insightful.
Gurney could also easily be accused of handling the issue of race too glibly:
Scott: Are you mad she had a major love affair with a black man?
Cornelia: Mad? I’m thrilled! And jealous! The closest I’ve ever come to an affair with a black man is to vote for Obama.
Yet if “Love and Money” is trivial, it is also convivial. The clue to how we’re supposed to take this play is in the couple of suave, bubbly Cole Porter songs Gurney somewhat oddly works into the show (Cornelia is giving away her piano to Juilliard, and a student, Jessica, comes by to try it out.) Anderman is delightful as what used to be called a character, somebody easily mistaken for dotty, but who has actually become wiser and more open-minded with the years, and more willing to speak her mind.
At one point, Cornelia holds up a waste paper basket that looks like an elephant’s foot. “This was originally owned and operated by a majestic African elephant. It was shot by my late husband on his last hunting trip.” She uses the waste basket as a reminder of mankind’s cruelty to animals. Michael Yeargan’s meticulous set design is matched by Gurney’s precision with the English language. Both make the play fun to take in from moment to moment, even though those moments don’t ultimately add up to one of the playwright’s best works.
As I wrote in a profile of A.R. Gurney last year, “Love and Money” is the final, and only new, play in Gurney’s year of residency at the Signature Center, which coincided with a Broadway revival of his “Love Letters,” after the playwright’s 25-year absence from The Great White Way. Quick to follow is the revival of his “Sylvia,” which when it opens on October 15th will be only the fifth production on Broadway by this author of some 50 plays. At age 84, Gurney has lived to see his work, and his reputation, dusted off and presented anew.
Love and Money
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues)
by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos
Michael Yeargan (Scenic Design), Jess Goldstein (Costume Design), Stephen Strawbridge (Lighting Design), John Gromada (Sound Design).
Cast: Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham, Gabriel Brown as Walker “Scott” Williams, Pamela Dunlap as Agnes Munger, Kahyun Kim as Jessica Worth and Joe Paulik as Harvey Abel.
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $25 until September 27; $55 after
Love and Money is scheduled to run until October 4, 2015