by Stan Richardson · January 12, 2004
Abundance is a clear-eyed, barrier-breaking, unsettling, and ultimately optimistic new play that lives on in the mind days after you see it. The subject is money and the shame, guilt and terror that makes us reticent to talk about it. Playwright Marty Pottenger’s docudrama, constructed from four years of interviews, research, and community workshops with minimum-wage-makers and multi-millionaires, strips away that compulsive silence and engages the audience in a dialogue whether we like it or not.
We are addressed directly by the performers, most often as co-participants in a civic dialogue group, sharing the most intimate financial facts and follies. There are intermittent episodes or mini-dramas—a lonely aged dying Caucasian billionaire and his African-American butler; a couple of philosophical garbage collectors—the which we watch not through the fourth wall, but through the screened-in patio.
If you think this sounds didactic, let me confirm your suspicions. As the lights rise, we hear the chirping of little soundbytes—statistics and aphorisms about scarcity and plentitude—delivered by five actors, who can only make these statements so compelling. (The extent of the “choreography”—that is, the organized walking—credited to Pottenger and her co-director, Steve Bailey, occurs at these times.) The mini-dramas are a bit more substantive, but they too can feel like a Public Service announcement.
But the bulk of the show, consisting of the characters in the dialogue group interacting and telling their stories, is much less homiletic. These tales go deep and the cast conjures the men and women masterfully. Thom Riviera has a facility with dialects that makes his Mexican migrant, New Jersey Rabbi, NYC sanitation worker, and Indian adjunct professor at NYU all vivid and distinct. As a petrified upper-class homemaker, Cary Barker has a well-written part and her performance is heartbreakingly human. Nikki Walker, while unconvincing as a chipper Asian undergraduate, is remarkably believable as a self-righteous lower-class African American woman who has a ferociously jubilant epiphany. Joe Gioco and Herb Downer are consistently pleasurable to watch, despite the fact that they spend most of their stage time as the millionaire master and his manservant, respectively—scenes which couple Pinteresque power-moves with a Brechtian distaste for subtext.
Pottenger is a playwright by way of performance art, which might account for the direct address, presentational style and overly-articulate activism. However her didacticism is not preachy, it’s pragmatic. She reports to us, with an infectious compassion, what she has discovered from the people to whom she has listened and proffers an array of suggestions and possibilities. By inviting us to consider how we think about our money, she lifts the taboo of discussing how we spend it.
There is a potential redemption for all of us who are worried and/or guilt-ridden by our financial choices and it begins with speaking openly to one another. The camaraderie I felt upon leaving the theatre was surprising, haunting and inspiring.