Message on a Dollar

There are up to 18 groups of 13 things on the front and backside of the dollar bill, from the number of stars exploding over the eagle's head on the back to the number of arrows it clutches in its left claw—facts that suggest the artist commissioned to design the dollar bill didn't suffer from triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13.

Along with a host of other arcane facts about the greenback, such trivia is delivered during the prelude of Cody Henderson's fine new play, Cold/Tender, receiving a workshop production as part of Cypress College's Winter Repertory Workshop. The prelude's cold, computer-like voice (Tiffany Moon) then instructs each audience member to write on their dollar bill in red ink something they want to tell the universe. Then, the voice continues, fold the bill and exchange it with a complete stranger, but don't unfold the bill until told to do so.

The exercise doesn't directly relate to the body of Henderson's play, but it draws the audience into what's happening onstage before anything's actually happening. By the time things ended some two hours later, I couldn't wait to unfold my new dollar and see what my stranger had written. More on that later.

One dollar bill plays a key part in the three stories simultaneously told in Cold/Tender, a play that bends time and space in a mostly successful effort to reveal humanity's interconnectedness. In the first, chronologically speaking, three teenagers meet on the weekend of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. In the second, a Russian migr couple attempt to run a health salon in California amid news that their homeland and family have been devastated by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. In the third, three Americans vacation in Cuba in 1999, guilt-ridden yuppies grappling with the intense poverty just outside their luxury hotel.

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Each tale stands on its own, but each reverberates with the same themes: economic exploitation, communism vs. capitalism, logic vs. symbols, and how in moments of great crisis people either come together in strength or collapse.

Cold/Tender is billed as a workshop production, so you tend to forgive actors who may not own their characters or their lines. But there's very little broken in this Cypress College production directed by Sadie Katz, although the long blackouts do need work. Some of the performances border on brilliant, and no one gets in the way of Henderson's well-crafted script. It's a poignant, provocative and moving experience.

The most interesting of Henderson's themes is exemplified by France (the talented Cindy Gonzalez), a sexually frustrated teen whose best friend, Rhonda (Jennifer Hardy), is the daughter of a man who sells bomb shelters for a living. Through France, Henderson explores the conflict between those who yearn to see the world as a mere sequence of facts and those who see it more symbolically. Having to spend the night in a bomb shelter and live in fear of commie bastards when all she really wants to do is listen to music drives her crazy.

So France grabs a dollar bill and writes her message to the universe: take a chance, and good luck. Years later, that same bill gives strength to Vlad, the owner of the aforementioned California health salon. To Vlad (Eric Ferman), the strangely written message is a symbol of all that is great about America: with a lot of hard work and a little luck, anyone can succeed. His wife, Sasha (Isabella Binoche), is less easily seduced—politically and physically. While she is still grieving over Chernobyl, a typically selfish American client asks her for sexual favors while she's giving him a massage.

Vlad and Sasha ultimately decide to leave America. Before they depart, however, Vlad hands the bill to Dan (Alex Arter), who considers it to be his lucky dollar. Thirteen years later, while vacationing in Cuba, Dan gives the bill to his fiance, Julie (Blair Winegarner), for good luck.

What becomes of the dollar reveals that it's much more than a prop of convenience in a story that Henderson puts together with a puzzle master's skill. Even masterful puzzles need some work, of course: by play's end, it feels like we've spent more time in Cuba than Castro, and the whole piece runs about 15 minutes too long.

But it's still a unique and constantly engaging piece, even in this embryonic stage. It's clear that Henderson, an LA playwright with a few notable credits, possesses considerable talent.

After the play, my head reeling with that feeling that we've all drawn Caesar's last breath, that we're all separated from Kevin Bacon by six degrees, I hopped in my ride and unfolded my dollar bill in the hope that what my stranger wanted to share with the universe would mean something to me. Nothing. I checked both sides: just a plain dollar bill. Was that symbolic? Had I communicated with a nihilist? Or was this merely evidence that someone in the audience was unable to dispense with preconceptions—you can't deface a dollar bill!—long enough to participate in a unique experience. I don't know.

But I do know I wrote something on my original bill. One word. And it's somewhere out there in that vast American wasteland of shopping and consuming, buying and selling. And if a bill with one word in red ink falls into your hands during an otherwise innocuous commercial transaction, take a moment to consider the message, and then pass it on. You'll find yourself closer to the heart of Henderson's play than you could possibly imagine.

Cold/Tender at Cypress College's Studio Theater, 9200 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 484-7200. Thurs. & Sat., Dec. 13 & 15, 8 p.m. $12.

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