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Getting and Spending
Wordsworth's words inspired the title and sum up the theme of this merger of comedy and drama, the world of high power finance and the contemplative world of a Franciscan monastery. The author, Michael J. Chepiga, is a practicing lawyer who initially planned to become a Franciscan priest. Getting and Spending's leading male character dropped out of a the highest echelons of the legal profession to become a Franciscan priest. An interesting juxtaposition of autobiographical grist for the creative mill that has taken Chepiga's morality play from a trial run at The Old Globe in San Diego to Broadway.
For all of its expressionistic staging and pulsing modern beat, what we have here is an old-fashioned decidedly derivative: play that pushes a number of modern society's philosophical hot buttons. To right injustice, he taps into the Robin Hood myth. To challenge audiences to thoughts about being a good person in a venal world, he provides a dollop of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (with worldly young man-meets spirituality-tale turned into a mid-life journey). To make it all entertainingly palatable, (this is after all, Broadway, and audiences don't want to be depressed after a hard day's "getting and spending"), he taps into the flavor of golden oldie fairy tale comedies starring the likes of Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn . Not necessarily a bad thing if the full flavor of these sources are captured.
Mr. Chepiga, like his lead character, must have spent plenty of time on his knees for he's been blessed with enough top notch support to give Getting and Spending every opportunity to be a play with an A-Movie rather than a B-Movie/TV Law show flavor. For starters there's John Tillinger's fast-paced direction. Heading the 7-member cast are the excellent Linda Purl as the Robin Hood heroine in investment banker suit and French Roll coiffure and David Rasche as the author's Monkish alter ego. (More than 5 characters in a new play by an unknown playwright is a true luxury these days and currently only Warren Leight's Side Man has justified such luxury ). Last, but by no means, the ever inventive James Noone has designed a high-tech set that fully captures the play's intentions. A frame of electronically lit columns switches dramatically from flashing ticker-tape stock quotations, to the Wordsworth quote and a cross -- a simple and effective median to move us from Kentucky monastery and motel to New York courtroom. With Kevin Adams' lighting design supplying appropriate windows, a table, two benches and an office chair are the only furniture needed. If I seem to be going overboard in praising Mr. Noone's set it's because it points to Getting and Spending's fatal weakness: A set is supposed to lend support to a play, not outshine the script and bring to mind the old adage of a picture is worth a thousand words.
To sum up the play's basic premise : Victoria Phillips, (Linda Purl who originated the role, is an investment banker facing imprisonment on charges of insider trading. She's pinned her hopes on snaring Richard O'Neill (David Rasche) as her defense counsel. Trouble is that O'Neill, disgusted with serving an unjust justice system has flown the legal coop to get in touch with his spirituality as a novitiate in a Franciscan monastery in Kentucky. The determined Victoria (it takes grit to become an investment banker and deal in millions of dollars of stocks, legally or illegally!) tracks him down and storms the hallowed halls of the monastery, brassiere bared. She wins over the reluctant lawyer with her true crime of "felonious criminal idealism", loses her heart to him, and and faces a trial of conscience after the courtroom trial.
To add moral support and comic relief, there are two more droll than realistic monks who are still torn between prayer and getting and spending (the monastery's pretend money investment club makes the electronic flashes of stock information as meaningful as when those flashes project a cross. Brother Alfred is endearingly portrayed by Derek Smith. Brother Thaddeus (Macintyre Dixon) does double duty as a curmudgeonly trial judge. There's also Victoria's friend, frequent escort and wannabe lover Charles (Jack Gilpin). To round out the cast there's also Victoria's mother (the excellent Debra Mooney) who unwittingly started the insider trading mess and now, at her daughter's insistence, must be the chief witness for the prosecution headed by the gratingly ambitious Elizabeth Panelli (Deidre Lovejoy -- last seen by this writer as the more laid back Lydia Languish in The Rivals ).
While no acts are specified, the play breaks neatly into two one hour segments. The first hour establishes the basic premise and arcs towards the resistant Richard's predictably agreeing to defend the persistent Victoria. Part two focuses on the the trial. . Since this is a stage and not a real trial, Mr. Chepiga wisely doesn't bore us with too many of the dull details of the real thing though, he cloaks it with a bit of insider lawyering via an arcane defense known as the Scottish defense. (This does indeed have some connection to Scotland, unlike scot free and other Scotch sounding expressions).
The lawyer-laden audience at the performance I attended, (a fact confirmed by some intermission eavesdropping), responded to everything and especially the "insider" lawyer stuff with appreciate laughter. Even interchanges like the following were met with guffaws: "A good lawyer-- isn't that an oxymoron?" -- "When all else fails consider the truth" followed by a comeback of "If we're going to march into court and tell the truth, what do we need a lawyer for?"
These wheeler and dealer types may keep the Helen Hayes filled for a while. They may, like Chipega, have dropped out from a more idealistic path offering the "3 minutes of bliss and many hours of doubt" he defines as the Franciscan monk's life. Whether time out for evaluating the deeper meaning of life is in their past or future, Getting and Spending lets them contemplate being better persons in a big bad world with enough easy laughs to make the philosophical issues easy to take -- and forget.
For non legal/financial theater goers perhaps the realization of the cost of two billable hours of Mr. Chipega's insights might make the price of a ticket seem like an irresistible bargain.
Sommerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge remains one of the top ranking novels at Amazon.com. This link is to a Penguin paperback edition. The movie starring Tyrone Power may still be available on video.