Friday, July 14, 2006

Dirty Dollars

"Burleigh Grime$" New World Stages, July 13, 2006

Mark Moses (Desperate Housewives) and Wendy Malick (Just Shoot Me) star in this new Wall Street comedy by Roger Kirby. What could have been a fresh and interesting look at backroom business deals and market manipulations remains another cliche. Mr. Kirby has written this quasi-comedy about a Wall Street high roller, Burleigh Grimes (Mr. Moses) who has discovered a chance to get back at his first boss by putting the former boss' son through his own torture in the world of stock trading. Grimes has a quid pro quo relationship with a television financial reporter Elizabeth Bigley (Ms. Malick) in which he makes stock trades to take advantage of rumored stories he feeds to her (avian flu to global warming are credited among the fictions). Once the profit is made, Grimes and Bigley share in the profits.

Grimes has two henchmen working his trading desk, Buck (the hilarious John Lavelle) and Hap (jason Antoon). Igors to his Grimes' Frankenstein, they carry out his plots and misdeeds all for shared financial fortune. Along come George Radbourn (James Badge Dale), son of Grimes' one-time boss, eager and wet behind the ears. Grimes hires him on the spot to effect his life-long revenge. Also coming along about the same time is Grace Redding (Ashley Williams), brand-new assistant and protege to Ms. Bigley. Wrapping all this up in a nice package is the fact that Grace, George and Buck all went to college together.

Surprise, surprise! George and Grace were lovers in college and friends with Buck, then known as Theo. George is anxious to reunite with Grace, despite the fact that both of them have taken 180 degree turns from their respective majors to their current jobs. She was part of the long-hair, environmentally aware, modern-day hippie crowed and is now being groomed for CNN-style news talking head.

Plots and subplots abound, with most characters making major and unexplained directional changes. Grace starts out wanting to return integrity and honesty to broadcast financial reporting and ends up clawing her way into Bigley's job. George, having erred in his first job authenticating provenance at an auction house finally reveals himself to wanting his own unexplained revenge on a distant (and never seen) father.

Buck, however, wants to be the next Burleigh Grimes and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Mr. Lavelle gives Buck, what could have been a 2-dimensional role, significant detail and specificity. His energy and focus as this nerdy, driven, and idiosyncratic character are tremendous. This is one of the least inhibited performances I've seen in New York since seeing Norbert Leo Butz as Freddie in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Less fortunate is Mr. Antoon in the role of Hap. Hap never gets significant focus or motivation to do much of anything other than play straight man to Buck. Mr. Dale, as George, brings a fresh-faced exuberance to his role, but the script seems to hold him back.

As Grace, Ashley Williams (currently appearing in Showtime's "Huff") brings the same sweetness to this role. She gets a little bi-polar in the second act as she tries to manipulate George into giving up confidential information about Burleigh and Bigley's illegal activities. I think she's doing the best she can with a poorly written character. Just naming a character Grace doesn't endow her with that quality.

Ms. Malick gives Bigley the same quick-talking edgy performance she demonstrated on television, but is missing the softness that a Rosalind Russell would have used to humanize her character. Bigley is a cartoon (even demonstrated in her name "Big"ley).

Mr. Moses also suffers from a poorly written role, and doesn't seem able to overcome it with any style or wit. His Grimes (a dirty player of sort - another hand-grenade of character naming) is ruthless and blustering, and generally unlikeable. To see him fall in the end brings no pathos to the proceedings.

David Yazbek has helped out by writing a rock score to back up the action, but the fine performance by the band adds little to the evening. It does provide a basis for Andy Blankenbuehler's competent choreography (a serviceable tango between Mr. Moses and Ms. Malick, and a less serviceable attempt by Mr. Dale and Ms. Williams) to try to present some interest to these two couples' relationships, but again, little is revealed. For me, Mr. Yazbek should have either gone ahead and written songs to make this a full musical, or cut back the music to let it have a more profound effect in pivotal scenes. The current result is mostly noise.

I've been pretty critical of the script, but some of this blame may go to director David Warren. He did create some very interesting blocking and transitions, but seems to have left the actors to their own devices when it came to character and scene development.

It felt, once again, like this show would have been better served as a 1/2 hour pilot for TV, rather than a 2 hour evening of theatre.

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