Money Talks November 2003
Theater review: Abundance
BY DAVID WARNER
Abundance, written and directed by Marty Pottenger, at FlynnSpace
last weekend. Pottenger gives her post-performance lecture,
"The Making of Abundance," on Saturday, Nov. 22, 8 p.m.,
at Dartmouth College, 105 Dartmouth Hall, Hanover, N.H.
Marty Pottenger had me at hello. Actually, she had me before hello. Because the first thing you do as an audience member at Abundance, the five-actor performance piece she brought to FlynnSpace last weekend, is fill out a short form, anonymously, that asks you to state your income, your savings and what you spend your money on.
I knew that Abundance was about people's attitudes towards money. Pottenger has been traveling around the country talking to billionaires and minimum-wage workers, including two visits this year to Burlington, and her interviewees' responses are integrated into her script. So I guess I should have been prepared to answer a few questions myself.
But faced with having to assess the facts of my economic life in public, I panicked. Wait, I don't want to write this down! I don't even know the answers! But I should know! Or maybe I don't want to know? I don't want to do the calculations where people can see the answers? I finally gave up and scrawled: "I have no idea. That tells you something."
It certainly told me something. Even before the show started, Pottenger's project had made me face up to her central thesis: That the subject of money in America is laden with fear, shame and confusion, and it might be a good thing for the country if we figured out why.
This is the second of Marty Pottenger's pieces to pass through Burlington. I didn't see City Water Tunnel #3, her one-woman show about the construction of the largest public-works project in the Western Hemisphere, but it's clear that her amalgams of theater and oral history depend greatly on her actors' versatility. And her Abundance troupe is abundantly versatile. The actors play two, three, even four roles apiece with no costume changes, and it's to their great credit that each character is so fully realized. You leave the theater thinking you've seen a whole lot more than five people onstage.
Several narratives thread their way through the three - yes, three! - acts. The most consistently affecting one follows a series of group encounter-sessions similar to Pottenger's workshops, in which attendees discuss questions such as, "What is the greediest thing you have ever done?"
The actors play composites of real people, their words drawn from both workshop transcripts and text written by Pottenger, but they're no less specific because of that. In fact, these are the freshest and most telling portraits in the entire piece. There's Anand (the dazzlingly protean Thom Rivera), an Indian-American economist at New York University who can't make ends meet, and whose drily witty analysis of his dire financial straits is simultaneously painful and hilarious. Especially a long monologue tracing the progress of his own shit: "Shit is my life, my life is shit."
There's Patsy, an upper-middle-class housewife drowning in mortgage debt whose nervous laughter disintegrates into tears, and Lizzie, the no-nonsense Italian woman stricken with cancer who scoffs at Patsy's pain. (Cary Barker plays both these women in quick succession, and the transformation is stunning.) June (Nikki E. Walker), an African-American woman working for peace and justice causes, moves from bitterness to a rousing declaration of hope - and an exhortation to everyone to come out of their financial closets and admit, "I am a greedy bastard!"
June's explosion into evangelism doesn't seem forced; though it's not likely to have happened in a group session, it feels moves from bitterness to a rousing declaration of hope Other moments reveal the hand of the playwright too overtly. Pottenger admitted in a post-show discussion that there were never any fights in the discussion groups. Maybe that's why a conflict between Patsy and Evie, a confessed shopaholic played by Walker, feels so manufactured. Asked to relinquish a material object she values, Evie sets about cutting up a Prada shirt, prompting Patsy to try and pull the garment away, screaming, "No! It's Prada!"
The audience was much more aghast when Patsy announced she was about to cut up her credit cards; we'd just heard how dependent she was on them, so there was something more real at stake than the destruction of an alleged piece of designer cloth.
Pottenger is also too present in another of the narrative threads, a running scenario of an obscenely wealthy wheelchair-bound old man, Lazarus (Joe Gioco), and his taciturn black manservant Job (Herb Downer). The names alone tell you we're in symbolic territory here, and the relationship changes little over the course of the piece, except that Laz becomes more and more vicious and Job more and more stoic.
The heavy-handed setup aside, though, the exchanges between the two men feature some of Pottenger's most pungent writing, especially a memorable exegesis by Lazarus on the essentially fictional nature of money. From time to time, Laz also clicks through a private slide show of his own art collection, which allows for some sharp juxtapositions, such as Jasper Johns' American flag next to "George Washington Crossing the Delaware," and effectively suggests that everything - our art, our history, our taste - has been taken over and commodified by the rich.
There's a fair of amount of rich-bashing in the piece, the Mr. Smithers-esque Lazarus being the most blatant example. Gioco's other character, a financier and family man named Bradley, shows a lot more potential for further development. The actor conveys his buttoned-up propriety but also lets us see glimpses of the decent man underneath. He's mystified by the inequities around him but unwilling to share too much of what he has.
Bradley is a complex enough character, so it seems a little too pat at the end of the play when the illegal immigrant Hector (Rivera) points accusingly at him. Sure, rich white men are the chief beneficiaries of an inequitable system, but up to that point the message of Abundance seemed to have been much more radical - that in fact we're all greedy bastards, the Hectors as well as the Bradleys.
A shortcoming with Bradley, and with most of the other characters, is that we hear lots about their problems with money but not many details about what they do to earn it. Pottenger's script names plenty of jobs, in lists that become a swirl of words: "I'm a receptionist for $7.25 an hour… I fold clothes… I make 600 bucks an hour doing something illegal…We made our money in oceans…"
But Pottenger could pay still more attention to the specifics of our everyday work lives - the tasks we complete, the problems we solve, the deals we make. These inform and are informed by our attitudes about money, and they need light shed on them, too.
The closest she gets to a portrait of the daily grind is with the recurring characters of two New York City gar-bagemen named Sal (played by Rivera) and Jasper (played by Downer). Part comedy team, part masters of ceremonies, they reappear from time to time to read Harper's Index-type lists of economic statistics. Sometimes they add visual aids, such as the jars of BBs they use to make a vivid demonstration of the sound of great wealth.
But even more telling are the passages when Sal and Jasper talk about their own lives: Sal is sending his kid to MIT on scholarship. Jasper's worried about the environment, and goads Sal for driving an SUV. It's about as far from the two sewer workers on "The Honeymooners" as you could get, and it's another instance in which Pottenger seems to be telling us, "Look around you - the guy hauling trash is dealing with the same financial issues as the lawyer.
Money is a great equalizer as well as a great separator: Talk about it."
One statistic certainly got the FlynnSpace audience looking around. Sal and Jasper reported that, based on the forms turned in at the beginning the show, the total worth of the 120 people attending the show that night was $34 million. Pottenger says the average skewed much higher here because she invited her Burlington interviewees to attend the performance. As with other cities, these included people who were very wealthy as well as the working poor. Who was who? Looking around, it was impossible to know for sure, and Pottenger makes sure everyone's identity is kept confidential. If they want to come out about their true financial identities, they will - but in their own time.
© Seven Days Newspaper, 2003