Playwright A. R. Gurney has written any number of plays that continue to be performed at regional theaters around the country, including “The Dining Room,” an intelligent, bittersweet look at the waning of white Anglo-Saxon culture in Buffalo over the last century, which was revived in a beautiful production last year at the Westport Country Playhouse (and subsequently at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park). His touching “Love Letters” was revived on Broadway last season and is scheduled to tour the country in the upcoming season with Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw who put the “love” into the film “Love Story.” His “Sylvia” is prepping for a major revival on Broadway this fall and his newest play, “Love and Money” was workshopped in a full production at the Westport Playhouse and opened on Monday evening, August 24, at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre off-Broadway in New York City, where it has been extended through October 6.
While Gurney has long demonstrated a deft touch as a writer, particularly in those comedies that explore very serious underlying realities, “Love and Money” proves to be a major disappointment. It is hardly of the caliber of some of his lesser-performed hits, such as “The Cocktail Party,” “The Old Boy,” “Big Bill” and “Children,” all which resonated with regret and understanding. What it does offer is a powerhouse role for an older actress, and in “Love and Money,” the elegant and poised Maureen Anderman has the time of her life.
Anderman has established herself as a more-than-reliable, nuanced actress from her earliest stage performances. In Connecticut, she has stunned audiences as the suicidal young woman in an Edward Albee premiere at Hartford Stage (“Listening”) and more recently as the novelist Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking” at the Westport venue. She is quite comfortable in the classics as well as the newest plays, and she leads “Love and Money” with a sturdy resilience that overcomes even the few uncharacteristically corny lines that Gurney throw in.
Here she is the wealthy, intelligent Cornelia Cunningham, an Upper East Side widow from a relocated wealthy Buffalo family, who is in the process of downsizing her opulent townhouse prior to moving into an elegant complex for wealthy senior citizens with amenities galore. In addition to her WASP-y liberalism, Cornelia also reveals a discomfort with her wealth, as she plans to distribute her possessions among several nonprofits and give the bulk of her estate to yet another charity whose goals she shares. Her two adult children, while continuing to receive income from an ongoing trust, understand their mother’s terms, resulting in part from their somewhat profligate lifestyles.
On this particular day, the last that Cornelia is scheduled to inhabit her townhouse, she is visited by a young associate from her law firm, a 20-30ish man she has never previously met, but who comes from an esteemed family, albeit Jewish. As played by Joe Paulik, Harvey Abel proves to be a match for Anderman’s extremely sharp Cornelia, as she tests his ability to comprehend the vagaries of estates and trusts and he good naturedly banters back point for point. Although obviously distressed by the firm’s decision to send this younger but amply qualified attorney rather than one of her regulars, she agrees to work with the man especially once he produces a rather shocking letter the firm has received in recent days. A young man, claiming to be the abandoned son of Cornelia’s globe-trotting daughter, has asked to meet his grandmother. Further complications ensue once the supposed grandson arrives and proves to be African-American, which Cornelia, knowing of her daughter’s past behavior and practices, admits is highly possible.
The more open Cornelia and her doubting, fuming attorney, played to the hilt by Paulik, gently question and confront the young man who seems to have an answer to every question and an explanation about how was able to locate Cornelia’s address. Gabriel Brown provides Walker “Scott” Williams with an earnest sensitivity and an intelligence that can be quite charismatic, with the occasional glimpse of an antic desire to be accepted and included in Cornelia’s estate plans, in recognition of the years he was denied his true family. If this reminds anyone of a not-to-long ago play (based on a real life situation) in which a young African-American man enjoyed the hospitality of a number of Upper East Side families while pretending to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier, don’t worry. Gurney will eventually have a character provide that exact information later in the play. Unfortunately, it will only serve to remind audience members that John Guare wrote about the subject in “Six Degrees of Separation” with much more ingenuity and depth.
Gurney also provides Cornelia with a loyal, cynical, wise cracking Polish maid, played with humorous diffidence by Pamela Dunlap, who offers an amusing, knowing running commentary on the events on stage. It is quite easy to believe that the maid, Agnes, and Cornelia have enjoyed a lengthy relationship that has allowed them to rely upon each other for advice, understanding and support, beyond mere housekeeping responsibilities. Also thrown into the mix is a young Asian-American woman, Jessica Worth, played by Kahyun Kim, who has come from Julliard to test a piano that Cornelia wants to donate to the school’s vocal program. Kim has a lovely singing voice, which she demonstrates as she tries out the instrument, but her presence seems to be predominantly as a time-filler, so that the audience can be entertained while the other characters partake in a lunch downstairs. It’s an odd playwrighting choice, because her on-stage solo is hardly sufficient time for the characters to eat.
Gurney apparently wants the play to occur in real time over the course of just over 90 minutes, and he has had to include some creaky stage gimmicks to accommodate this. In order to provide the necessary exposition, he introduces Abel as the new attorney, so that the young attorney can ask questions of Cornelia that her regular attorneys would already know. It does, however, seem preposterous that a white shoe law firm would (1) not have informed Cornelia that they were sending over an associate she did not know and (2) would not have had him accompanied by a senior member, particularly if Cornelia and her late husband were such important and socially powerful clients. Also, if Harvey is a good as he seems to be as an attorney, he would have known all the answers to the questions he asks Cornelia ahead of time. It just what a high caliber law firm would do.
It also strikes everyone strange, especially the audience, as to why Scott’s letter coincidentally becomes important on the day that Cornelia is packing everything up. While Gurney has provided a convoluted explanation for the presumptuous grandson’s timing, it strikes one as dramaturgically weak. And though Gurney has his characters discuss some weighty manners such as the responsibility of the rich toward the poor, the difficulty of parenting via tough love, the willingness to go up against the mores and traditions of one’s social group, he ends the play with a more than happy ending that meets nearly everyone’s needs in spectacular ways—and is at heart quite unrealistic. There are more satisfactory resolutions and forgiveness here than in most Shakespeare comedies.
Mark Lamos, the Artistic Director of the Westport Playhouse, provides Gurney with an exquisite production that he manages to keep moving, despite a few moments when characters go downstairs to answer doors or get some food that tend to stop the action in its tracks. Michael Yeargan has created a dazzling second floor drawing room that Cornelia uses as an office, filling it with elegant furniture, a plethora of bulging classy bookshelves, and paintings that genuinely resemble the most compelling and valuable works of the grand masters. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting fills the room with plenty of natural light with subtle shadings for interior hallways that receive less light. Jess Goldstein has outfitted the cast in attractive, suitable costumes, with jackets and suits for the men, a uniform for Agnes, and student casual for the visiting Jessica. Of course, Anderman can inhabit anything Goldstein creates with dignity and comfort, as she most vividly demonstrates here.
The folks at Westport did not want local writers to review the play during its Connecticut engagement, but afforded the opportunity to do so once the work opened at the Signature Theatre, along with the regular New York critic. Perhaps more commentary may have provided some necessary input to the playwright and director prior to the New York opening, but it’s too late now, and “Love and Money” will face history with whatever the New York critics have pronounced.
If however future productions can be cast with an actress with the poise, intelligence, elegance and charm of Anderman, then there will assuredly be future life for “Love and Money.” While it is sadly just too derivative and unimaginative to provide a satisfactory theatrical experience, it remains a delight to see how Anderman has grown as an actress and willingly throws herself in each part with an honesty and believability that is not apparent on the page.