Based on the sluggish opening-night performance of ART Station’s “Love & Money,” a faulty player piano is probably the least of the show’s problems. Such are the occasional perils of live theater that, when the antique prop fails to properly function in a couple of crucial scenes, the actors are suddenly forced to improvise, some more comfortably than others.
Cornelia Cunningham, the affluent central character of this lesser comedy by A.R. Gurney (“Sylvia,” “Love Letters”), might dismiss the mishap with a “whatever,” one of her favorite words, which she defines as a “verbal shrug (in) accepting that which you cannot change.” Awkward? Yes, but rarely does the rest of the production ever feel quite as spontaneous or “live,” under the static direction of Paul Conroy (artistic director of Out Front Theatre).
Since her husband and both of their grown children have all passed away, Cornelia has decided to approach her twilight years by divesting her worldly possessions and spreading the wealth. The chief beneficiary of her vast family fortune could be the charitable organization Save the Children — somewhat ironically, insofar as she was unable to protect her own progeny, whom she not-so-affectionately describes with terms like “drunk” and “zombie,” among others.
As vaguely depicted by Gurney, Cornelia’s humanitarian enlightenment and philanthropic transformation, her desire to “make amends” for the “crime” of being too rich, is superficial at best. No sooner has she commented that “money can be a magnetic force,” then who should be drawn to her Manhattan brownstone but Walker Williams, a young man claiming to be her illegitimate grandson and looking for a handout? (That the kid also happens to be black invites unfavorable comparisons to John Guare’s infinitely superior “Six Degrees of Separation.”)
Here, the role is played rather ineffectually by newcomer Brandon Smith, who seems beyond his depth in hinting at any of Walker’s possible ulterior motives. Equally bland and even more disappointing, given her experience, is Janet Metzger’s tentative portrayal of Cornelia, who’s alternately referred to as “spry” or “difficult,” but who mostly comes across as devoid of much charisma or gravitas. Discussions between them about opposing “cultural components,” or the respective viewpoints of their WASP and African-American “persuasions,” ring hollow.
The refreshing standout in Conroy’s cast is the venerable veteran Theresa O’Shea. She singularly enlivens the show with a few appearances as Cornelia’s longtime housekeeper, cook, confidante and general caregiver, Agnes, a so-called “welcoming presence” capable of “rising to any occasion” — literally, such as it is, in the otherwise listless case of this particular play. Also of note: another handsome set by ART Station’s resident scenic designer, Michael Hidalgo.
One can assume the company will repair or replace that pesky player piano, if it hasn’t done so already. But to what end? In the grand scheme of things, “Love & Money” needs a lot more than a couple of trifling musical interludes to give it a meaningful reason for being, or seeing.
“Love & Money”
Through May 19. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. May 19; 10:30 a.m. May 15. $15-$31. ART Station, 5384 Manor Drive, Stone Mountain. 770-469-1105, www.artstation.org.
Bottom line: Dreadfully dull.
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