To Each According to Their Needs

Review of Love & Money at The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York

A. R. Gurney’s new play Love & Money, now playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York after previews at Westport Playhouse, seems the kind of light comedy of manners that Gurney, now in his eighties, can probably write in his sleep. The usual Gurney elements are present: upper-class WASPs, Cole Porter songs, Buffalo, Irish housekeepers, a breezy grasp of the current idiom—with “whatever” and “google” wielded by an elderly woman—and, here, a moral center that seems earnest though not earned.

At best we might say the play, directed by Westport Artistic Director Mark Lamos, tries to imagine, without taxing its audience too much, how to redistribute all that wealth stored by storied families on the upper East side. It also pays homage to other literary inspirations, dropping references to Hamlet, “Richard Corey,” The Dining Room (perhaps Gurney’s best-known play), and a tip of the hat to John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, which it recalls via a very affable African-American character who may be a con-man.

 Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham; photo by Joan Marcus

Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham; photo by Joan Marcus

We enter upon Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous set representing the sumptuous in-home office of Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman), "a woman of a certain age." It might take us a moment to realize that everything in the room—the leather-bound books, the art, the Empire desk and chairs and tables—bears a tag as for a White Elephant sale. Mrs. Cunningham, at long last, in the wake of the death of her stern, money-making, Big Game-hunting husband, is selling off everything to benefit charities and any project that aids underprivileged people or endangered species. As played by Anderman, Cornelia is a perky presence, firing ripostes at her skeptical new lawyer, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik) who tries to intervene with judicious caution. He’s playing a weak hand because Cunningham’s progeny—a son and a daughter—have both been outlived by their indomitable mom, and her unloved grand-kids have been bought off comfortably enough, so who is there to resist the liquidation?

Enter our plot complication: a letter from a man named Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown) who presents himself as the unknown, illegitimate offspring of Cornelia’s daughter. Raised in Buffalo by his black father and mother, he carries as introduction a letter ostensibly written by his biological, well-to-do mother exhorting him to seek his fortune from his grandmother when “he’s ready.” What he wants is to be set up on Wall Street with the family funds. Harvey, of course, doesn’t buy any of it (he blames Williams’ scheme on a recent newspaper story about Cornelia’s intentions), but Cornelia, after the charming young man makes his way into her study, is willing to entertain the possibility of kin if only for a certain emotional frisson lacking in her life. That, one supposes, is where “love” comes into it. Cornelia has no reason to love Walker—who goes by “Scott” as in Fitzgerald and speaks accordingly—but he is certainly willing to be loved. And stranger things have happened.

 Joe Paulik (Harvey Abel), Gabriel Brown (Walker Williams), Maureen Anderman (Cornelia Cunningham); photo by Joan Marcus

Joe Paulik (Harvey Abel), Gabriel Brown (Walker Williams), Maureen Anderman (Cornelia Cunningham); photo by Joan Marcus

Walker’s ingratiating willingness to be appreciated comes up in a more unflattering light when he comes on to Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim), a self-possessed Julliard student on hand to audition a player-piano Cornelia is donating to the school. That piano becomes the key prop in the play, helping to pan out its running time, inspiring graceful dance moves as “Scott” tries to sweep Cornelia off her feet, as well as conjuring a brisk rendition of Porter’s “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please,” by Kim, and a funny blast of Porter scorn from Harvey. But, despite class and racial differences, despite shadowy pasts and allusions to painful back story, not much gets sorted out here. Cornelia and her faithful maid Agnes (Pamela Dunlap) give us and Williams the condensed tale of the Cunningham children—a drunken son, a gad-about daughter—whose respective demises their mother blames on the riches that kept them above the fray.

Gurney lets everyone keep it light, and the patter—Cornelia calls it “badinage”—aims to entertain. Lamos, if there might be awkwardness or awareness to bring to light, doesn’t delve. We end with the sense that everything unpleasant in life can be handled by a check in the right amount in the right hands (such as at a certain local drama school). Certainly no one in the play doubts this, though Cornelia, with easy conscience, inveighs against money as “a curse” that caused suffering in her family. No doubt it did, and her expiation via eradication feels justified; it’s just that her solution seems to play into a fairy-tale sense of how things might be if only the privileged would divest their privileges, smugly loving all those needy people out there. The rich need the needy, you see, in order to feel richly rewarded by gratitude.

Breezy, friendly, and short, Love & Money feels like a TV installment and makes us wonder what would be happening if we "tuned in next week."

Signature Theatre and Westport Country Playhouse present
Love & Money
By A.R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Maureen Anderman, Gabriel Brown, Pamela Dunlap, Kahyun Kim, Joe Paulik

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Matthew Melchiorre; Associate Artistic Director: Beth Whitaker

The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York