It's the Stupid Economy at Rude Guerrilla Theater Co.

It’s the Stupid Economy
In a case of life imitating art (or is it the other way around?), one of the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co.’s last two shows is the wrenching tale of a couple with big dreams brought down by money woes

Love and Money is a heartbreaker of a play. The English couple at its heart is shackled by mounting debt and trapped in a system in which those who fall behind have scant hope of catching up.

The characters are consumed by worries about money, status, the future, making ends meet and no small portion of mental illness. Yet, at the same time, they’re also yearning for something to provide purpose in their increasingly chaotic lives.

Playwright Dennis Kelly has spun a small jewel of a play that manages to say a great deal without sounding wordy, pretentious or self-important. However, he might be a touch too inventive for his own good. Rather than offering some heavy-handed kitchen-sink drama beginning at point A and ending at point B, his scenes play in reverse chronological order. That effectively dispenses with rising tension and plot, instead getting to the heart of the matter immediately: The play is not about what happens to two people, but rather about their wounded, fragile psyches and the desperate choices they are forced to make.

But the six scenes are often incongruous, with intense dramatic moments followed by highly comedic ones that veer toward camp—at least in this Rude Guerrilla production. And Kelly frontloads the play with a 15-minute monologue that feels even longer. It’s like putting a speed bump in the first quarter-mile of a NASCAR race.

Yet this is a remarkably compact play that suggests Kelly possesses great talent, equal parts craft, substance and wicked humor.

In the too-long first scene, we learn that David (a suitably prim and proper David Beatty, whose desperation is never too far from the surface) is a widower wrestling with his culpability in the suicide (or is it murder?) of his obsessive-compulsive wife, Jess (beautifully rendered by Brenda Kenworthy). Next, we find ourselves at his wife’s gravesite, where her parents recount their rising indignation at a Greek man building an ornate mausoleum to his wife that towers over their daughter’s plot. They are also consumed by money, as well as guilt over their daughter’s fate. But David Cramer and Karen Harris take such perverse pleasure in recounting their desecration of the rival plot that even this most heinous act sounds hilarious. The image of the husband taking a dump on the busted fragments of the Virgin Mary’s face is priceless.

We return to seriousness in the third vignette, in which we see the pathetic depths that David must wallow through in order to provide help for his damaged wife.

The fourth scene is the most stylized of the six: a gaggle of creditors hovers like vultures around Jess, simultaneously preying on her economic weakness while also showing signs of remorse that the cogs in the machine they represent are so cold and inhumane.

Then we’re back to hijinks, with a disturbingly funny scene between a drunken sod (the always exceptional Jay Michael Fraley) and a flighty waitress (the equally capable Terri Mowry). Though funny and a touch harrowing, the piece’s tone and characters don’t jibe with the rest of the play.

The final scene ties everything together with an intensely blue knot. Before her wedding, a wide-eyed and optimistic Jess brims with love and excitement for her life to come. The knowledge of what happens to this fragile, earnest dreamer is enough to put a lump in the most crotchety of throats.

The play earns its poignancy not through lame, maudlin emotional manipulation, but through the intellectual appeal of one compelling idea: In a society in which everything is measured in pay grades and pension schemes and sales targets, what happens to that part of the human soul that yearns for meaning, purpose and some kind of point in the whole mess?

Depression over the mushroom cloud of debt surrounding their precarious lives, as well as the grim realization that the lives they wanted are all but unobtainable, is central to both David and Jess. But, as the shrinks say, depression is anger turned inward. And there’s no denying the anger that playwright Kelly feels toward an economic system that siphons the humanity out of humans.

It’s more than a touch ironic that a play about crushing debt is on the boards at Rude Guerrilla. Love and Money is one of the last two shows staged by the company, which, during its 10 years, stood boldly as the county’s most adventurous, edgy theater. Why is it closing? It’s the economy, stupid.

Good luck to everyone associated with this remarkable company. You have provided a decade’s worth of some of the most memorable theatrical experiences of my life.

 

Love and Money at the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co., 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688; www.rudeguerrilla.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; also March 19, 8 p.m. Through March 21. $10-$20.

 
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