The Virtue of Selfishness

Tom Walker is a colonial-era slacker whose idle hands entice the devil to offer him the wealth he is unwilling to work for. All Tom has to do is oversee Old Nick's moneylending business and watch the dough roll in from the poor and foolish. When a touch of conscience causes Tom to give away some of the profits, the devil comes to collect.

That story line—with its moral and ethical quandaries wrapped up in mythological and political trappings—could have produced a great evening of theater. The fantastical ambiance—moody lighting, fiery fingertips, skeletal sets and reverberating voices—are all delivered with South Coast Repertory's usual aplomb and provide the sugar for the bitter pill the play might deliver. It's nothing terribly original, but in these days of rising personal debt, failed stock markets and unearned presidencies, there's a neat subversive quality to the suggestion that you can Make It Big without working for it if you only sell your soul.

I just wish that's what playwright John Strand's adaptation of Washington Irving's story “The Devil and Tom Walker” actually says. He begins his play as a social critique but backtracks halfway through, as if he simply doesn't have the balls to follow his argument to its conclusion. By jettisoning the imaginative elements with several idiotic plot twists, Strand turns the story —and, inexplicably, his own seeming intentions—inside-out. The final scenes appear brazenly to celebrate the very worst that capitalism brings out in humans: personal corruption, laziness, revenge, theft, insanity and suicide. By the end, Tom and the devil dance together, clapping their hands and toasting their ill-gotten gains.

Director Kyle Donnelly directs those last moments (as well as the rest of this philosophically murky mess) without the slightest hint of irony. She may not have had much to work with in the banal script, but that final flipped finger is pretty damn galling.

Tom Walker at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through May 27. $18-$47.

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