Theater Review: A Good Scheme Falls Short in Ponzi

Bernie Madoff is the Chik-Fil-A to Charles Ponzi’s two day old chicken sandwich. His crimes required extraordinary hubris and no small amount of intelligence and charm. His meteoric, glittering rise to the upper echelons of New York society made for both an epic downfall and the kind of dramatic gold mine that can be difficult for writers to resist.

Commissioned scribe Elaine Romero took the bait with Ponzi, the centerpiece of the Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival. Romero carefully builds the story of Catherine, a wealthy heiress played by KDT company member Christina Vela, whose semi-hermetic, Daddy’s Little Princess existence intersects with the nouveau riche duo of Bryce and Allison, his social-climbing non-wife (more on the non-wife thing later), at a cocktail party. The consequences are somewhat disastrous, depending on who you ask and also maybe on what you had for dinner before the show.

If I’m sounding equivocal, that’s because I couldn’t find much about this show to grab on to. The characters are contradictory in the worst possible way, though the actors, to their credit, are working hard. And indeed, Allison, played by KDT company member Diane Casey Block, is the most interesting and dynamic of the three. Block plays the eager-to-please, wannabe socialite with the perfectly forced bravado of the truly vulnerable.

But Catherine is a mess— alternately whining about her hoards of cash and reveling in it, serving on various charitable boards but never ponying up any of her own money. As the caretaker of the family fortune (dear old Dad is dead, Mom is never mentioned), we’re supposed to believe that she’s brilliant and cautious, capable of navigating the cruel, greedy world yet still secretly yearning for true love. This sort of capriciousness is obviously supposed to be charming. It’s not, but for the sake of the plot as well as his own ulterior motives, Bryce (KDT company member Max Hartman) pretends to think so.

Also for the sake of the plot, Catherine falls prey to…love? Lust? Mad fits of female passion? I couldn’t tell. Anyway, she does that, with him. And since all those things are enough to render any intelligent woman deaf, dumb, and blind, she agrees to drop her safe, 80-year-old financial planner in favor of financial guru Jack, who is oft-talked about by Allison and Bryce but never seen. Jack promises 8.75 percent returns, a nice number that’s good, but not too good, if you know what I mean, wink wink nudge nudge.

I’m not ruining anything for you here. Anyone who hasn’t pulled a Rip Van Winkle for the past three years already knows exactly what’s going to happen, and the few tiny, tiny twists near the end don’t do much to shock, either. One of which is the non-wife thing. It’s such a superfluous non-event, plot-wise, that the fact that I’m telling you that Allison and Bryce are not actually married after they spent a good hour claiming that they are doesn’t spoil a darn thing. Scene changes are denoted by digitally projected subtitles like “Questions Without Answers” and pictures illustrating the most heavy-handed metaphor one might expect to find in a play about a pyramid scheme (A HOUSE OF CARDS! OH WAIT, THEY’RE TAROT CARDS!).

But the most unfortunate thing is that Romero takes ideas time-tested to titillate— money, forbidden romance, good looking but scheming egomaniacs— and somehow manages to suck out all the sex. Perhaps it’s that she relies too heavily on the aforementioned goldmine, perhaps it’s that she doesn’t give the audience enough credit and the didacticism grates.

Either way, we feel no sense of the anticipation, chemistry, or electricity that should accompany our initial investment (which isn’t helped by the somber set and perfunctory lighting) and thus there’s no tragedy when things eventually go awry. The lessons feel hollow and our sympathy goes to the one left holding the bag. That’s Allison, of course, who finally does the smart thing and gets the heck out.

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