Wednesday, May 13, 2015

63 Trillion by John Bunzel

By Joe Straw

Money is the foulest thing that lithers between your outstretched members.  And the smell, although not sickening, severely coats your olfactory organs. It is filthy, go ahead, take a whiff, paper or coin, it makes no difference.   

The underlings usually handle all the money once they get their sweating mitts on it.  Those with a conscience worry about doing the right thing, knowing that with every misstep, they might be flushing the fruits of someone else’s grunts down into an unending cesspool. And, that is not a good thing. 

But most men, like the men in the play, don’t have a conscience. They put up a brave front as the coins start trickling away, through no fault of their own, of course.   – Narrator

"63 Trillion" is about loyalty. But loyalty is not evident among of this devilish group of sycophantic men who only worship the almighty dollar.  Backbiting, double crossing, and undercutting are their good traits.  They live and survive this deep dark world of wealth management because their humanity dial is set on “Predatory” mode.  And let’s face it; they are all implacable in looking out for number one.  

The New American Theatre in association with Mud Bay Partners presents “63 Trillion,” a world premiere comedy by John Bunzel, directed by Steve Zuckerman, and produced by Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin through June 7th, 2015 at the Odyssey Theatres in Los Angeles.

Frank (Robert Cicchini), pouring himself a cup of coffee, asks about dogs, his dog in particular.  

“Do you know anything about dogs?  Are dogs supposed to be nice?” – Frank

Of course Tom (Ken Lerner) is taken aback by the question and asks for more details.

It is seven o’clock in the morning at the brokerage house where Tom is a partner.  Frank has a separate office somewhere down the hall and only comes into Tom’s office when he really wants something, like eating his sausage sandwich in the conference room or getting a cup of coffee, or maybe just looking for information.  

Frank and Tom are throwing small talk around. It’s a rather strange discussion this morning - talking about Frank’s dog, which bit his mother, salivating all the while, and with a raging hard-on, to boot.  And to top it off his mother is an invalid, in a wheelchair, probably unresponsive and salivating as well.  

Tom says you can’t train the dog because it’s in his DNA. 

Hmmm, this is an interesting thought.  One wonders if certain attributes of the men in this brokerage house are connected because of their DNA.

Jonah (Noah James), an underling in the firm, runs to his desk, in a worried state, and tells the guys the stock market is down.  But Frank, Tom and Kenny (Jack Stehlin) are not troubled, not in the least.  They have war stories about the 2000 crash and the 2008 crash, which they came through with flying colors and seem unperturbed about this impending crash, believing that the market will correct itself within a day. They know this world; it is in their DNA.

But, what does concern them is that Peter Black (Jordan Lund) is coming to visit the firm that very day with 10 million dollars in the bank.  It just so happens that his name is Black coming in on a “Black Friday” type of day.  The quest is to get him to sign the papers and hand over the nasty coins.

They need to talk to Dick (Jeffery Jones); he is the man, the savant, a brilliant wealth manager, and a one time financial advisor to the Dali Lama.  He also has an elevator in his one story ranch house and an ATM in his bathroom.

Dick enters, the seas part, and they bow to his reverence. (Not really, but thinking this could be a grand staging idea.)

“Do you have an ATM in your bathroom? Why?” – Jonah

Dick, the savant, provides anecdotes but his answers are not clear. Fatuously jostling with coffee mug in hand seems to be the order of his day. Still, he is a very likeable fellow who isn’t interested in the small money details but keeps his eyes wide open to seize every opportunity and chance he gets.

Peter Black arrives with cash in hand, figuratively. He is a huge man with fists of steel willing to break anyone who doesn’t do right with his money.  He is the son of a circus man who has worked hard for every penny.  He is not ashamed that he has stepped on a lot of toes, and he is a little hesitant about turning over his money on this dark day in the stock market.

Later we learn that things did not go well.  Money has been flushed that day and Nancy (Megan Gallagher), the firm's lawyer, arrives to dismiss a few employees.  But when the feds arrive downstairs, ready to come up and to take action, Nancy regroups and changes tactics for the time being and this is the point in the play where we find where the true loyalties lie. 

The world premier of the play “63 Trillion” by John Bunzel is like a soup.  The elements of this soup have to settle a bit before we know we’ve got the right taste, feel, texture, and that’s the way it is with this production.  What is not clear is Frank’s relationship with the firm. Also Peter Black takes it in stride when Kenny says his money is missing. Further development is needed to take the characters to extremes so that this comedy works. Each character has to be different, and that difference needs to be accentuated.  Sure, the characters are cut from the same cloth, they all speak the same lingo.  The savant is different somehow but we don’t really see it.  A little diversity in character would greatly enhance character differences and possibly motives. Still, there is a lot of very clever dialogue and we never know what is going to happen until the very end, which makes for an overall delightful evening.

Steve Zuckerman, the director, keeps the pace moving along briskly but we might want to have the actors doing their work,  in their job space as they are speaking their dialogue just to get a true sense of the workplace, rather than having the characters at times speaking downstage center.

There’s enough here for this exceptional cast of names and faces to have you smiling at the end of the performance.

The grand thing of small intimate 99 seat theatres is that it places you in the same room and in some instances a few feet away from actors you’ve come to know over the years. Jeffrey Jones was the reason I came, and he did not disappoint.  His facial expressions, exquisitely absurd, are every bit the price of admission and this is a performance not to miss.

Robert Cicchini plays Frank and gives it his all, the instrument, the voice, character, are all fine attributes of this actor.  Only there doesn’t appear to be a reason why he is in the office other than to eat, tell stories, and have coffee.  To come in the room and chat about money doesn’t really creatively work. Finding a reason will give the character a lot more viability.

Megan Gallagher plays Nancy the lawyer.  Nancy is a strong vibrant woman, with a lot of smarts who is caught off guard at the most inopportune moments.  Gallagher is wildly funny and the most rounded character in this play.  She appears to come in to dismiss a couple of employees and finds herself throwing a barrier between the men in the room and the feds. Her work is delightful.

Noah James gives an impressive performance as Jonah an intern who works hard to get what he wants. Jonah will man the phones, watch the market, talk to the headcheese, and schmooze with the best of them all in the name of the all mighty dollar. In the end, they should all bow down to him, literally. Without giving anything away, they might put him on a pedestal.

Ken Lerner plays Tom, one of the partners in the firm, who finally gets fed up and has to punch someone.  By the way, that little action, played to perfection. But we really need a creative objective from the character especially when he is trying to solve a problem and turning down all sorts of calls with just a wave of the hand with each call.  That scene needs a lot more action, taken to extremes, to find the grand definitive moment.

There is a very interesting scene when Jack Stehlin who plays Kenny convinces Black to give him the money. This was the moment when this character justifies his existence. It was like stepping up to the plate and hitting a home run and Stehlin is marvelous when he completes that moment.  Funny, but the moment passed with hardly any reaction from the other characters. Stehlin's work is a job well done. 

Jordan Lund plays Peter Black.  And Black is not a man you want to mess with because he is physically imposing.  When he has money he is mean, vicious, and vile and not someone you want to be nose to nose with. But Lund has to make a creative choice as to the kind of character he becomes when his money is lost.  That aside, Lund had some very exciting moments, has a grand voice, and is very believable in the role.

Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin, Producer/Managing Director, New American Theatre, does a fantastic job bringing all of the elements together.

Jeffrey R. McLaughlin’s set was impressive – a multi-layered design that ran true to life of an office environment, and the hills outside the window, somewhere on the west side gave us a grand idea of where this is all taking place.  The Lighting Design on this night was slightly confusing in that some of the actors were in deep shadows when speaking down to someone sitting in a chair.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Christopher Moscatiello – Sound Design

Florence Kemper – Costume Design

Roger Bellon – Composer

Caitlin Price – Stage Manager

Michelle Briddell – Production Assistant

Judith Borne – Publicist

Run!  And take someone who likes to spend a lot of your money, like an ex.


Or: 310-477-2055 Ext 2

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