'Love and Money' a messy mixture in Santa Ana
Review: Rude Guerrilla lends the U.S. premiere strong acting, but the 2006 script still confuses.

Special to the Register

With constant coverage by news organizations and blogs everywhere, it's pretty hard to escape the mention of the stagnating economy and its worldwide impact.

In his "Love and Money," Dennis Kelly takes the tightest possible focus on the subject as he looks at the pressures and tensions created by money problems in close personal relationships.

As the final Main Stage production in its 12-year history, Rude Guerrilla Theater Company is giving the 2006 play its United States premiere, directed, fittingly enough, by Dave Barton, the troupe's artistic director and one of its co-founders.

It would be wonderful to report that the play, or Barton's staging of it, belonged in the pantheon of stellar productions Rude G. has racked up over the last dozen years, but "Love and Money" just doesn't stack up with the company's best. Barton's well-chosen cast delivers fine acting of a consistently high caliber, but this factor alone is unable to lift the play to the level one would wish for the troupe's swan song.

Kelly's point of attack is the presentation of a series of seemingly unconnected scenes. A bereaved widower named David tries to pick up the pieces of his life after his wife's suicide by having an Internet romance. An older couple sits in the cemetery where their daughter is buried. David approaches the college girlfriend he dumped, swallows his pride and asks her for a job. David confronts his wife, Jess, about her out of control spending.

The consistent thread in Kelly's deliberately jumbled narrative line is the marriage of David and Jess, and how the weight of massive debt crushes all life from it. The play opens with David (David Beatty) alone at the computer, sending and receiving e-mails to and from his new lady, and ends with Jess (Brenda Kenworthy) expounding on the meaning of human existence following David's proposal of marriage.

If a straightforward, logical, linear narrative is prose, then Kelly's technique is poetry, because if you pick apart the strands of language he uses, you'll find some incredibly beautiful thoughts. The biggest problem with "Love and Money," though, is that its style is far too abstract for most audiences, conditioned by linear storytelling, to be able to make heads or tails of.

What's left in Barton's staging, which breaks the script up into seven discrete scenes separated by blackouts, is his distinctive directorial style, the often compelling performances of his cast, and Kelly's language, which keeps circling around the two subjects of the play's title without actually coming right out with an exact meaning. That's for you, the audience, to ruminate upon over coffee afterward or in the car on the way home.

Are we supposed to believe that Jess is mentally unbalanced, or simply that she and David are colossally mismatched? That's hard to say. Kelly doesn't give many hints, and Kenworthy's portrayal is just vague enough to keep us guessing.

What will stick in your mind is Jess's argument with David at a hospital as she describes witnessing a man being stabbed to death while David interrogates her about straying from a job interview just so she can fulfill the urge to go shopping. In the play's closing scene, Jess's monologue tells us that all we do in life is to connect with others. She's frantic to understand the truth, even while asking, "Isn't money death?"

Even more potent, and clearly this staging's focus, is Beatty's performance as the harried David. In a soft, lilting accent that could originate in Manchester or Liverpool, Beatty's David explains to us that he and Jess are in "debt – big debt," to the tune of {#x20a4}70,000.

In the opening scene, Beatty shows a portrait of a man in misery who can only pretend things in life are normal. The scene where David comes crawling to Val (Jill Cary Martin), his ex-sweetheart from college, is even more harrowing as David debases himself just for the sake of landing a job he won't be able to stomach, all so he can lift himself and his wife out of the red.

Those two scenes and Beatty's and Kenworthy's argument at the hospital place Beatty at the forefront as this staging's most sympathetic, and compelling, character. Even with the limitations of a text that's so philosophically dense, Barton finds ways to make other characters memorable: Martin's Val is a charming yet lethal dragon lady in her emasculation of David. In a brilliant character turn, Jay Michael Fraley uses just a few minutes of dialogue to paint an intricate portrait of a boozy old lech willing to pay hefty fees to those who'll allow him to take compromising photos for use on the Internet.

Even if you're unable to unravel the script's deeper meanings, try enjoying Kelly's poetic use of language and the intimate characterizations of Barton's cast, which combine, in fleeting moments, to render larger truths.

What would you do for money, if you were in dire need of cash? Just how far would you go? This is but one of the many moral dilemmas posed in the US premiere of Dennis Kellyís thought-provoking satire, Love and Money, at Rude Guerrilla Theatre. The title might suggest a romantic comedy at another venue in LA or OC, but not at this Santa Ana storefront. Rude Guerrilla has offered unusually stimulating theatre since they started in 1997, and hues to form in their final mainstage production.
Thereís no overt violence or nudity, two hallmarks of RG productions over the years, but they show up in subtle ways. People behave like animals, inflict violence on others psyches, and strip them of their dignity; souls are laid bare. The playwright speaks of man's inhumanity to man in a spare, poetic fashion that's at its lyrical best in the final monologue, which brings to mind Lucky's rambling, philosophical tirade in Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Brenda Kenworthy stands out among a stellar cast as Jess, a fragile wife, notably in the aforementioned monologue on the meaning of life. Jay Michael Fraley is hilarious as a dissipated sot with some repulsive ideas; Jill Cary Martin chills as a prospective employer with the soul of a reptile. Dave Barton's visually striking direction is all the more impressive after a look at the script; much of what's on the stage isn't on the page.

--Jordan Young, Examiner.Com

Itís the Stupid Economy

In a case of life imitating art (or is it the other way around?), one of the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co.'s last two shows is the wrenching tale of a couple with big dreams brought down by money woes.
Love and Money is a heartbreaker of a play. The English couple at its heart is shackled by mounting debt and trapped in a system in which those who fall behind have scant hope of catching up.
The characters are consumed by worries about money, status, the future, making ends meet and no small portion of mental illness. Yet, at the same time, theyíre also yearning for something to provide purpose in their increasingly chaotic lives.
Playwright Dennis Kelly has spun a small jewel of a play that manages to say a great deal without sounding wordy, pretentious or self-important. However, he might be a touch too inventive for his own good. Rather than offering some heavy-handed kitchen-sink drama beginning at point A and ending at point B, his scenes play in reverse chronological order. That effectively dispenses with rising tension and plot, instead getting to the heart of the matter immediately: The play is not about what happens to two people, but rather about their wounded, fragile psyches and the desperate choices they are forced to make.
But the six scenes are often incongruous, with intense dramatic moments followed by highly comedic ones that veer toward camp at least in this Rude Guerrilla production. And Kelly frontloads the play with a 15-minute monologue that feels even longer. It's like putting a speed bump in the first quarter-mile of a NASCAR race.
Yet this is a remarkably compact play that suggests Kelly possesses great talent, equal parts craft, substance and wicked humor.
In the too-long first scene, we learn that David (a suitably prim and proper David Beatty, whose desperation is never too far from the surface) is a widower wrestling with his culpability in the suicide (or is it murder?) of his obsessive-compulsive wife, Jess (beautifully rendered by Brenda Kenworthy). Next, we find ourselves at his wife's gravesite, where her parents recount their rising indignation at a Greek man building an ornate mausoleum to his wife that towers over their daughter's plot. They are also consumed by money, as well as guilt over their daughter's fate. But David Cramer and Karen Harris take such perverse pleasure in recounting their desecration of the rival plot that even this most heinous act sounds hilarious. The image of the husband taking a dump on the busted fragments of the Virgin Maryís face is priceless.
We return to seriousness in the third vignette, in which we see the pathetic depths that David must wallow through in order to provide help for his damaged wife.
The fourth scene is the most stylized of the six: a gaggle of creditors hovers like vultures around Jess, simultaneously preying on her economic weakness while also showing signs of remorse that the cogs in the machine they represent are so cold and inhumane.
Then we're back to hijinks, with a disturbingly funny scene between a drunken sod (the always exceptional Jay Michael Fraley) and a flighty waitress (the equally capable Terri Mowry). Though funny and a touch harrowing, the piece's tone and characters don't jibe with the rest of the play.
The final scene ties everything together with an intensely blue knot. Before her wedding, a wide-eyed and optimistic Jess brims with love and excitement for her life to come. The knowledge of what happens to this fragile, earnest dreamer is enough to put a lump in the most crotchety of throats.
The play earns its poignancy not through lame, maudlin emotional manipulation, but through the intellectual appeal of one compelling idea: In a society in which everything is measured in pay grades and pension schemes and sales targets, what happens to that part of the human soul that yearns for meaning, purpose and some kind of point in the whole mess?
Depression over the mushroom cloud of debt surrounding their precarious lives, as well as the grim realization that the lives they wanted are all but unobtainable, is central to both David and Jess. But, as the shrinks say, depression is anger turned inward. And there's no denying the anger that playwright Kelly feels toward an economic system that siphons the humanity out of humans.
Itís more than a touch ironic that a play about crushing debt is on the boards at Rude Guerrilla. Love and Money is one of the last two shows staged by the company, which, during its 10 years, stood boldly as the countyís most adventurous, edgy theater. Why is it closing? It's the economy, stupid.
Good luck to everyone associated with this remarkable company. You have provided a decadeís worth of some of the most memorable theatrical experiences of my life.
--Joel Beers, OC Weekly