By Karen Isaacs
A R. Gurney’s latest play, Love & Money, had its world premier (and tryout) at Westport Playhouse earlier this summer, but it was only when the production went to the Signature Theater on West 42nd Street that critics were asked to review.
Love & Money at times seems like a recapitulation of all that Gurney has written in his many plays; yet also he seems that his point is more direct and less involved with class than with money.
Cornelia Cunningham (played beautifully by Maureen Anderman) is a wealthy elderly woman who will be leaving her New York City townhouse for a posh retirement community. She has been working with her estate lawyers on the distribution of her considerable wealth. She and her husband divorced late in life and the settlement left well provided for. As the show opens, we see the office or drawing room littered with art and other objects all tagged either be to sold, donated or otherwise distributed.
The dilemma is that Cornelia is not leaving a penny to her two grandchildren but instead leaving it all to charities many involving children and animals. She delights in surprising worthwhile organizations with check that have multiple zeros on them.
When her legal teams sends a young lawyer to talk to her, he cautions her about the possibility of the will could be contested by children and advises her to revise her will and trusts to give them a part of it.
She is adamant. She believes fervently that money or wealth is the root of all evil. She points to the examples of her son and daughter. Her daughter died after leading a discontented life that involved various substances and her son was an alcoholic with multiple marriages. His two children have been generously provided for during Cornelia’s lifetime; she sees no reason to leave them more money. She believes she was cursed by having too much money.
But the lawyer, Harvey, tells her about a disturbing letter that his office has received. It is from someone named Walker “Scott” Williams who claims to be the son of her late daughter. Harvey is afraid that Walker could encourage the other two grandchildren to contest the will. Of course, he is suspicious that this is all a con, encouraged by some publicity that laid out Cornelia’s actions which appeared in the Buffalo newspaper, from which the family originally came.
Almost before you can digest this, the doorbell rings and who should be there? Walker Scott Williams, a nicely dressed young African-American. He is definitely a smooth talker and seems to charm Cornelia. She indicates that his story of his birth and his life in Buffalo seems plausible. He says that her daughter was the love of his father’s life and rather than let her have an abortion, his father agreed to raise the child. Of course, Dad is now dead as are most of the other people that might confirm the story.
Walker makes no bones about wanting money – he eyes the townhouse with an appraising eye and tells Cornelia she should not sell it. He states he want to live in New York City; that he has outgrown Buffalo.
So what happens? You may or may not guess. For a while I was afraid that sentiment might lead Cornelia to be taken in by the young man. Let’s just say the ending is slightly unexpected and unconventional.
What I enjoyed about the play was the knowing references to other works by both Gurney and others. Just when I began thinking about Six Degrees of Separation, Gurney makes reference to the play. And Cornelia several times refers to the importance of the dining room and the cocktail hour in WASP culture.
This production has a gorgeous set by Michael Yeargan, representing the opulent townhouse.
Mark Lamos has directed this piece with a sure hand. He gets the most out of all his performers. Anderman is terrific as Cornelia, both looking older than she is and keeping us guessing about her mental state – is she beginning to “lose it”?
Joe Paulik is appropriately eager and protective as the lawyer, Harvey, and Pamela Dunlap plays the cook/maid as if she came right out of a production of The Dining Room. Kayhun Kim has a small but amusing role as a NYU theater student stopping by to look at a piano that Cornelia is offering to donate to the department.
Gabriel Brown provides Walker with the charm, balletic elegance, confidence and a touch of menace.
Love & Money is not the best Gurney play, but it does provide an enjoyable evening’s entertainment and some food for thought.
It is at the Signature Theater on West 42nd. Street though October 4. For tickets, visit Signature Theatre.