ABSURD AS THE NORM Nicole Solas and Beth Alianiello in Bad Money.
Though Meg Miroshnik's new play, Bad Money, at Perishable Theatre (through March 8), couldn't be more timely to the current economic situation, it was actually first presented at Brown University's New Plays Festival last spring. If Miroschnik seems prescient, it was because she was looking at the worldwide implications of backroom deals and at currency fluctuations in emerging nations, two aspects of the international economic picture that have been at work for a long, long time.
She has set her story in a former Soviet state, a part of the world she's quite familiar with, given that she writes for magazines in Moscow. It's not clear whether Miroschnik, like her main character Agnetta, was "born in the wrong place at the right time," but she has said that she wanted to ponder the plight of young professionals who were born in a second- or third-tier country, raised and educated in the US or Europe, and then returned to their homeland, often to a very changed society with altered rules.
The playwright, along with dramaturge and director Vanessa Gilbert, approach all of this from the realm of political satire, where characters are stand-ins for types (but don't necessarily seem two-dimensional), plot points are stretched to exaggeration (but turn out to be true, nonetheless), and our everyday incomprehension of economic realities begins to feel normal (because it's incomprehensible to those behind the scenes as well). The directing here is spot-on, with top-notch timing, hilariously quirky stage business, and broad Slavic-like accents by the ensemble.
Nicole Solas is Agnetta, who relates the first time she smelled the purple money going bad, even as her skin was turning purple, too. She was just a child, but her mother sent her all over town, paying off debts with money she'd stashed around the house, keeping just enough to get her and her daughter out of the country and off to America.
Solas gets across Agnetta's naïvete and perplexity when she returns years later to negotiate a deal for an American company over oil rights in her native land. She makes Agnetta seem so down-to-earth, despite her purple visions, that she becomes a credible point of view for the audience.
Agnetta encounters her new boss, Joe (Josh Short), an American living abroad, trying to make a killing by learning the language and staying tied to his desk. The latter is a sight gag that Short performs quite well: for much of the play, he zooms around on a desk chair; he cannot physically leave it; it's become part of him.
Agnetta is surprised to run into "Auntie" (Patricia Thomas), her late uncle's first wife, who had been forced to live with "Auntie-Auntie," his second wife, after his demise. Auntie mentions that "Auntie-Auntie" died in her sleep, from the poisoned tea Auntie gave her. Thomas is terrific, her heavy accent and circumlocutions intrinsically humorous, in addition to a running cell phone joke.
Alexander Platt as Mansur, Jo-án Peralta as Magsud/Mahmud, and Beth Alianiello as various characters, including a waitress at the Fat Belly restaurant, carry the other comic moments in this serio-comedic piece. Platt plays a smarmy sort — "I cultivate an outsized personality" — who has made the right contacts to get enough money to be in the game. His cocky stance, along with running his fingers through his hair or strumming them in the air, conveys as much as his lines.
Magsud, with an upturned mustache, is head of the National Export Bank, and his identical cousin Mahmud, with a down-turned mustache, is head of the National Import Bank. Peralta accomplishes a great slapstick scene, by first turning one side of his face (upturned mustache) to the audience, as Magsud, and then the other side (downturned), as Mahmud.
Alianiello also strikes the right tone of deadpan in her roles, portraying the absurd as the norm.
For this is what Miroschnik and Gilbert capture so well in this 90-minute play: the questionable morality that pervades our economic system, from Agnetta's mother to the oil field wheelers and dealers, as well as society's blindness to it, whether deliberate or not. The rotten-egg smell of money going bad may be metaphorical, but in this day of con men named Madoff, truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.