Written by Michael Lew
Directed by Ralph B. Peña
Complex economic scams make for treacherous theater fodder, the social drama of fortunes immorally gained and livelihoods deliberately disappeared being irrevocably tied to the comparatively undramatic business of, well, business. It requires a balance between cold numeric specifics and big, broad human emotion, an equation that Enron
, for instance, couldn't manage
. Ma-Yi Theater
's premiere of Michael Lew's Microcrisis
(through October 23) packs the international financial mystery with disproportionate emotions to compensate for the less engaging shadiness of economic shenanigans. Skewing the numbers pays off; it's a madcap comedy that manages to convey something of how a great, Nobel Peace Prize-winning theory
can turn disastrous in practice. That it does so with a certain smugness—whereby bankers are all boogeymen and everyone else fundamentally good if easily manipulable—limits the scope of its attack on a pervasive culture of greed.
The dynamic production's whole machinery, concealed inside the safety deposit boxes and hidden doors that slide out of Clint Ramos's excellent bank vault set, moves at the command of Bennett (Alfredo Narciso), an investment analyst for the fictional American financial group Frankfurt Gold Rubin Bank. When he asks Randy (David Gelles), the second cog in his interest-spinning wheel, if he's ever heard of the bank, the 20-something Harvard grad lists the usual suspects:
: You're the guys who sold mortgage-backed CDOs to your investors only to secretly bet against them.
: That's Goldman Sachs.
: Oh then you're the guys who went bankrupt but still used government money to pay your execs.
: That's Merrill Lynch.
: Oh are you the guys who had a run on the bank because Mr. Potter stole Billy's money?
: That's the bank from It's a Wonderful Life
Even in the banking industry, fact is stranger than fiction. The first step in Bennett's international loan-bundling scheme, the sweet 19-year-old microcredit intern trying to help entrepreneurs in Ghana, Lydia (Lauren Hines), realizes the same in the following scene, when she's whisked away for a weekend of Bond-caliber
craps in Monaco. "There's only one rule of craps and it's the same rule of banking," Bennett explains, "Lydia, it's all about leverage."
Lew's play works similarly, beginning with the small sums lent out to entrepreneurs in developing countries like the Ghanian Acquah (William Jackson Harper) to help build his cell phone business, and swiftly expands in scope to implicate countless unwitting middle-class investors and the president of the New York Federal Reserve, Frankfurt (also played by Harper). An ex-colleague of Bennett's, Frankfurt's eager to pull strings for private interests, drop names and clear his own. "I said to Benny—Benny Bernanke," he specifies, "I said to Benny, you know what we really need under the New York Fed?... A state of the art racquetball court, and Benny's like 'Do it!'" The ensuing exchange with Bennett occurs during a hilariously pantomimed racquetball match, the volleys and returns mimicking the mental game unfolding between the two money magicians. Another supposed agent of control, a credit rating agent at Moody's named Clare (Jackie Chung) is literally moody, bartering with Bennett like an unruly teen who just wants to be beyond blame when the bubble bursts.
What's lacking in texture from these one- or two-toned characters the cast and director Ralph B. Peña (also the artistic director of Ma-Yi) make up for with unrelenting comic pacing that reminds of nothing more than ticker tape ceaselessly spewing stock prices. Hines and Harper especially find some emotional middle-ground within a production that pushes everything to extremes, while Chung kills in her relatively short scenes. Lew's writing is packed with punchlines—comic silences not so much—so that the audience rarely stops laughing while learning how greedy bankers can manipulate a humanitarian project and well-meaning people to turn a profit. One comes away, face sore from grinning, knowing a little something about microcredit, but sadly not enough to milk Ivy League alums for millions.
(photo credit: Web Begole)