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A CurtainUp Review
Love & Money
By Elyse Sommer
The initial Gurney residency productions, Wayside Motor Inn and What I Did Last Summer did what Signature has always done wonderfully well: Instead of remounting a few of his biggest hits (as Broadway did last year with Love Letters, and is about to do with Sylvia), they've dug down into the bottom of the Gurney oeuvre to see if a class A cast and design team, and an innovative director could unearth heretofore undiscovered strengths for involving and entertaining.
Love & Money is once again handsomely staged. Designer Michael Yeargan's book lined study of an upper East Side Manhattan townhouse is surely the stuff of many New Yorkers' real estate dreams. While most audience members will go home to more modest apartments, the scene and plot set-up promise another entertaining visit to what's come to be known as Gurneyland. You see, though the townhouse is in Manhattan, its senior citizen owner, Cornelia Cunningham, like her creator, grew up in Buffalo's wealthy white Anglo Saxon community.
It's the widow Cunningham's conviction that all the money via inheritance and marriage contributed to the tragic demise of her husband and children, with her grandchildren's future looking no better that establishes the plot premise: The townhouse and its contents will be sold and the profits donated to worthy causes, along with the rest of her fortune. Of course, it also means that Mr. Gurney has not abandoned the gentle Wasp-bashing that has made him the theater's acclaimed amusing and ever entertaining chronicler of these one-percenters. The potential problems in his crusty main character's plan are opens sesame for typical Gurney dialogue and apt foils to challenge Cornelia's plan, notably her lawyer and a surprise claimant to the family fortune — the latter an acknowledged borrowing from John Guare's best play, Six Degrees of Separation.
Ah, but there's the rub. Mr. Gurney might get away with this borrowing from Guare's terrific drawing room drama based on the true story of a young black man who claimed to be Sidney Poitier's son if he weren't also borrowing so much from himself but to lesser effect. While just 75 minutes long, Love & Money somehow feels long and lacks the sharp, careful craftsmanship that has made even Gurney's flimsier efforts enjoyably watchable entertainments.
Mr. Lamos had a chance to test drive the play at his Westport Country Playhouse which is co-producing it with the Signature. But he seems not to have taken advantage of the time between that preview run and the current one to get Mr. Gurney to give his text another go-round, and to draw less stereotypical performances from the actors. Maureen Anderman is a fine actress but her widow is too relentlessly opinionated and too predictably nobody's fool. Gabriel Brown somehow doesn't project the charm the role of the suddenly on scene Walker "Scott" Williams calls for (that middle name is a literary if not genetic link to Cornelia, since it refers to their mutual love of F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Pamela Dunlap has the Irish maid Agnes down pat, but Gurney has provided her with little to differentiate her from all other standard issue loyal and outspoken stage servants. Joe Paulik is excellent as Harvey Abel, the able trust and estate lawyer assigned to making Cornelia deal with the problems in her plan. But his role too doesn't escape surprisingly lazy plotting, as exemplified by his convenient but implausible exit from the stage to have lunch with his girlfriend, while Cornelia lunches with her is-he-or-isn't he grandson.
Gurney devotees will also recognize a repeat of a gimmick that worked well for him before, notably in his first move into political themes, Fourth Wall : a player piano that at the push of a button interrupts all the issue-geared dialogue with Cole Porter songs, one even sung by lawyer Abel. That piano device brings in a fifth character, Kahyun Kim, as a Juilliard Student who has come to inspect the instrument tagged for donation to her school. Gurney uses her to validate the Money part of the title via a hint of a romance with the hungry . for love and money Walter "Scott" Williams. However, she comes off mainly as a convenient device to pad and enliven a too slim and underdeveloped play. That said, there are enough theater goers who love Mr. Gurney enough to make anything with his byline a money maker. To wit, the Griffin was packed when I attended and has extended its run a week beyond the schedule closing.