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A CurtainUp Review

Old Money

All I wanted was for that horrid man to say `Saulina Victoria Webb, I include you in my list of all-American greats.' And I hate myself . . . more than I could ever muster up hating him.
--Saulina Webby, a currently unstylish artist, reacting to the tasteless, crass movie mogul Sid Nercessian's A-List of artists

Wendy Wasserstein's new play, Old Money, takes the doyenne of the feminist movement into territory we've come to associate with Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss, New York at the turn of the 20th Century. Not that she's ignored her own New York experience. Taking a cue from past Lincoln Center plays that moved back and forth in time (e.g. Arcadia and Pride's Crossing), Old Money meshes the world of New York during the Gilded Age and New York today.

At the crux of her rumination on the mores of these seemingly disparate societies, are two unrelated families, the Old Money-Old New York Pfeiffers, and the New Money-New York Now Bernsteins. The connecting thread to tie the two parallel stories together is an old upper East Side mansion currently owned by a New Money mega-millionaire, Jeffrey Bernstein.

The device to set Ms. Wasserstein's time-travelling tale of two families in motion are two parties. The first is thrown by Bernstein to polish his social image by showing off his restoration of the mansion to its original grandeur. It's a big party but we meet only Bernstein (Mark Harelik) and his son Ovid (Charlie Hofheimer) and six of the guests, with everyone else in the mansion's garden -- Madeleine Albright and the various other luminaries mentioned, the hired musicians and cast members who need to clear the stage for duologues. These trips to the garden also allow the actors to switch into the costumes required for their double roles as the hosts, kin and guests of the second shindig, hosted by the mansion's builder and original occupant, Tobias Pfeiffer (Dan Butler).

Money, real estate, social acceptance! Three subjects everlastingly fascinating, especially to New Yorkers. Add the fact that the playwright is the much honored (Pulitzer, Tony, etc.) consummate New Yorker, Wendy Wasserstein, and it's small wonder that Lincoln Center subscribers grabbed all available tickets the minute they went on sale.

Does this ambitious new work live up to its promise? The answer is yes and no.

Ms. Wasserstein has adroitly constructed her dual universe for smooth time traveling between past to present and, finally, even a trip into the future. The double casting cleverly underscores the parallels. Mark Harelik's Jeffrey Bernstein, the hedge fund analyst, and retailing tycoon Arnold Strauss, are both ambitious, nouveau riche Jews. Dan Butler plays both Pfeiffer, the bossy robber baron and the equally crass and unlikeable Hollywood mogul, Sid Nercessian. (Both Strauss and Nercessian try to climb the social ladder by way of membership of prestigious museum boards). Kathryn Meisle and Jodi Long are two aggressively upward mobile females, Meisle as a fortune hunter and Lang as Sid's status obsessed trophy wife and a snobbish, status quo fixated socialite.

The parallels apply to all eight actors and the sixteen characters they play. However, the playwright has stacked her deck so that the artistic, sensitive types with whom she is most in tune are given her best dialogue and insights, while the social climbers tend towards stereotypes.

John Cullum is funny and moving as Tobias Vivan Pfeiffer 3rd, the central figure who provides the impetus for bringing the ghosts of the past to mingle with the events of the present. Pfeiffer is an ailing, elderly New York historian and little read midlist novelist ("I'm read only by ladies in Buffalo when there isn't an Auchincloss they haven't read"). He's been invited to hobnob with the glitterati by the co-host, young Ovid Bernstein -- another likeable character, touchingly portrayed by Charlie Hofheimer. Cullum and Hofheimer also do well by their 1917 roles, Cullum as the mansion's architect and Hofheimer as son of the original robber baron who, instead of becoming the artist he wants to be, becomes an art patron.

Mary Beth Hurt also does outstanding work as Saulina Webb, an out-of-favor sculptor, who grieves for her recently deceased sister (Ovid's mother and Jeffrey's ex-wife) as well as the friendship with Jeffrey which is a casualty of his moving into the big money world and away from her and her sister. This outsider at the trendy party is just a bit like the kid with his nose pressed against a lavish toy store window. Even as she rants against the these unworthy dictators of fashionable trends, she shamefully admits her disappointment at not being on the vulgar movie producer's list of great American artists (see quote at the top of review). Sally, her counterpart at the 1917 party is an ahead-of-her-time feminist and arts arbiter. Hurt's women and Cullum's and Hochheimer's young and old men come closest to being live and lively Wassersteinians -- original and real people.

Emily Bergl also taps into the flesh and blood of her two parts, Sid's tough-talking hostile daughter and an Irish maid in the Pfeiffer household -- both romantically involved with the sons of the house (Hofheimer). Kathryn Meisle manages to tap into the desperation of working girls hoping to become society insiders, as Mrs. Bernstein in the present and Mrs. Pfeiffer in the past. However, for the most part she is too brittle to engage us emotionally. Jodi Long and Dan Butler fail utterly in rescuing their characters from their typecast predictability, though I doubt any actor could surmount the fact that these people simply don't have Ms. Wasserstein's usual depth or wit.

Like all the play's many parallels, the half terrific and half so-so characters also impact on the time-travelling device. What starts out as clever and entertaining, leans towards reptitious tedium after a while.

The production is, typically of everything at Lincoln Center, beautiful. Jane Greenwood has dressed everyone with her usual panache, from Cullum's wrinkled seersucker suit to the elegant Wharton-like outfits.

Thomas Lynch has designed an appropriately gorgeous house richly detailed with moldings, cornices, pilasters, glass doors topped with sections of bas relief. In the always interesting Lincoln Center Theater Review Lynch describes the process for creating the set. It has all the physical elements he and director Mark Brokaw wanted. However, their hope for a room with a "very warm feel, almost like being inside a violin" is, like the play, not fully realized. There is some enjoyable incidental violin music but it does not compensate for the absence of the warmth Lynch and Brokaw hoped to convey. Instead, midway through the play, that garden you only glimpse beckons temptingly and you can't help wishing for a chance to wander into it for a breath of fresh air with the unseen guests

By Wendy Wasserstein
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Cast: Emily Bergl, Dan Butler John Cullum, Mark Harelik,Charlie Hofheimer, Mary Beth Hurt, Jodi Long, Kathryn Meisle
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Lighting Design: Mark McCullough
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Sound Design: Janet Kalas
Original music: Lewis Flinn
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
Mitzi Newhouse, 150 W. 65th St. , 239-6200
11/09/2000-1/14/2001; opened 12/07/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 12/08 performance

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