MONEY LAB: An Economic Vaudeville

Review by Kathleen Campion

Money Lab - Photo by Arthur Cornelius

Photo by Arthur Cornelius

Because I have spent much of my career as a financial reporter, I often opt to review pieces that have the scent of finance about them.  Often, this is a mistake. Theater does not easily illuminate fiscal hijinks.  That’s partly because it requires too much exposition to get the joke, and partly because money is important, and more private than sex.

There are exceptions: Motley Fool can be funny, Trading Places was an entertaining morality play, and both Jon Stewart and John Oliver can twist a giggle out of fiscal policy on occasion. But, mostly, money isn’t funny.

So here’s what happens when Untitled Theater Company No. 61 marries economics and performance at HERE, a tiny downtown space just south of Spring St.

A gaggle of actors, musicians, and dancers try to engage a general audience–that’s people who have 401Ks but are not readers of the “Heard” column — in a sort of send up of markets.  Themes touch on greed, on the “1 percent,” on risk tolerance.

Our host, Mick O’Brien, is warm and ingratiating.  It’s his job to keep this carnival on the rails.  In each evening’s performance, there are four produced pieces, between which, O’Brien orchestrates bits of business.  He engages the audience in auctions and pulls volunteers to the stage — all to demonstrate how people behave vis à vis money and risk.

There are twenty-two produced pieces listed in the program, and, as one sees only four of those in a given night, I’m reluctant to hammer MONEY LABLet us just say, I may have chosen a bad night. Here’s what I saw:

“Dead Cat Bounce” is a mixed media piece.  Three dancers perform an interminable, repetitive number while video screens play and replay outtakes from the news coverage of the economic collapse of 2007-09. The video addresses the meltdown, and has little to do with “a dead-cat bounce.”  I don’t know what the dance addresses.

“Love and Greed” – proceeds on the shaky premise that economic collapse generates creative vitality.  Jenny Lee Mitchell sings to us, prettily, but mostly in German, backed up by a wonderful trombonist, Rick Becker.

In “The Money Atheist” Moira Stone offers up a funny-enough facetious retelling of the origin of money and her relationship with it.

The other one person act, “Adam Smith and Wonder Bread” has its moments as well.  This was the best piece in the service of the oh-so-thin premise, but it didn’t grab the audience.  There was a lot of talking and uncomfortable seat-shifting as Russ Roberts impersonates Smith in poetic patter.  “The invisible hand of the market,” while a marvel to dismal scientists, was illusive to this game-but-confused audience.

Any production that relies so heavily on the audience buy-in is bound to have good and bad nights.   Money Lab is frothy and sometimes fun, in the way that let’s-all-throw-in-together-and-put-on-a-show is fun.

Money Lab: An Economic Vaudeville – conceived and directed by Edward Einhorn.

WITH: Mick O’Brien (MC), Gyda Arber (on set exchange table), Corinne Woods (on set concessions), Laura Hartle, Stephanie Willing, Dina Rose Rivera (dancers), Jenny Lee Mitchell (singer), Maria Dessena, Rick Becker Marty Isenberg (musicians), Moira Stone (The Money Atheist), and Russ Roberts (Adam Smith).

Presented by Untitled Theater Company No. 61, Edward Einhorn and Gyda Arber did game design, and Patrice Miller is assistant producer.

Christopher Heilman designed the set, Jeff Nash did the lighting and Gill Serling the video design. Natalie Loveland handled costumes and Travis Wright did the sound.    At HERE, 145 6th Avenue, Manhattan through April 11th.  Email for information.  Running time: 80 to 95 minutes with no intermission.