nurtures abundant consumerism. Media bombards us daily with
urgent messages to buy. Television commercials, billboards,
magazine ads display a myriad of imagery and rhetoric creating
need in the populace to purchase. Playwright James Sherman chose
this theme to create a contemporary farce Affluenza!
now playing at the American Heartland Theatre.
The program for Affluenza! lists, following the pertinent
production information such as cast and staff names, and biographies,
diagnostic questions to see if the reader suffers from "Affluenza,"
a compulsive buying disorder (the program never really
defines the disease).
It goes on with, "If you have answered yes to more than
three of the above statements, you have contracted Affluenza!
Please for your own good, try these handy tips for beating Affluenza!"
The tips advise thrifty approaches to buying, like avoiding
the mall and eliminating unnecessary luxuries. Ironically, they
nestled this advice between pages of color ads for jewelry,
restaurants, interior designers and luxury hotels. The Heartland's
wet bar even contributed a list of specialty drinks, created
and promoted specifically for this production. However, the
list of advice for the Affluenza-afflicted seems to suggest
that avoiding the purchase of a specialty drink at intermission
for a visit to the water fountain makes for a wiser choice.
Sherman made a unique stylistic choice for the play: He wrote
everything in rhyming verse. As he began to write, he realized
that he was dealing with classical archetypes, reminiscent of
the 17th century French dramatist, Molière, who wrote
predominantly in rhyme.
The script itself contains specific references to Molière's
plays Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. Molière's
theatre came out of a long tradition of poetic language in the
theatre, prosaic recitations for royalty. The audience in 17th
century France expected to hear poetry. Even though Sherman
interspersed the verse with contemporary references to Martha
Stewart, Leona Helmsley and Enron for example, the style of
the language fails to touch the modern viewer. Today's audience
listens with an ear accustomed to the fast clip of a sitcom
or the quick, surprising barb of Neil Simon. In order to match
his rhyming scheme, Sherman gave each character long-winded
lines that manage to pull back the pace of the event. (I overheard
an audience member at intermission say to another, "I heard
you were dozing off.")
Not only do Sherman's words slow the action of Affluenza!,
but also the predictability of his plot makes for a show short
The members of the Moore family connive against each other to
acquire the estate of William Moore (Kip Niven), the elderly,
wealthy patriarch. Ruth (Merle Moores), the ex-wife, desires
hundreds of thousands of dollars for plastic surgery. The son,
Jerome, played by the articulate Sean Grennan, wants money to
feed his addiction to meaningless purchases on eBay.
Enter Jennifer Bradshaw, striking and witty, as Dawn. Young
Dawn has won William's affections by reading him poetry and
spending quality time with him. Ruth and Jerome both suspect
her true colors, and once William proposes to and marries Dawn,
the predictable manifests. Dawn transforms from mouse to conniving
gold-digger, elated at her newly acquired affluence.
Jerome, determined to make Dawn's avarice known to his father,
has the nerdy nephew Eugene (Martin English) attempt to seduce
her, to prove her disloyalty. He has William hide behind a screen
(a very Molière device) as Eugene clumsily tries to entice
Dawn's affections. We see it coming that despite the awkwardness
of Eugene's advances, he and Dawn will connect.
Sherman wove the butler Bernard (Elijah Murray) in and out of
the story. He makes wry commentary on the shadiness of the others
and firmly holds a dear reverence for William. The character
also possesses versatile skills. When William needs a lawyer,
we learn Bernard is an attorney. He later dons the garb of an
energetically evangelical minister, then a rabbi. We start knowing
that when they need a qualified professional, Bernard will have
another costume change.
The highest stakes in the plot center on the recipient of the
estate; William shows age and failing health. It's easy to guess
which character will win.
The Heartland wisely chose a cast of classically trained actors,
all of whom handle the material competently. Jennifer Bradshaw
as Dawn takes us on a journey, a corrupt Cinderella. Bradshaw
enters as a quiet bookworm, soft spoken and small. After the
marriage, we see a triumphant shake of the hip a part
of her body that hasn't moved yet. The glasses come off, and
Bradshaw becomes a sultry, manipulative and stunningly gorgeous
trophy wife. Bradshaw gets the biggest laugh in the show when,
as the lavish version of Dawn, she declares, "If we don't
shop, the terrorists will win."
Del Unruh's set is perfect, lush and grand. The actors have
fun and do well. Sherman, however, made an unfortunate experiment
with the language.
Affluenza! runs through Feb. 20 at the American Heartland
Theatre in Crown Center. Call 816-842-9999 for tickets or visit
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.