UH's Serious Money: The 1987 Play About Financial Sharks Is Still Timely

The set-up:

Serious Money, Caryl Churchill's satire on insider trading in the London stock market won Britain's Laurence Olivier Award in 1987, and the Obie Award in 1988, as Best New Play. The University of Houston has staged this ambitious play, complex in design and large in cast, at its intimate Jose Quintero Theatre.

The execution:

A B'way cliché states "satire is what closes on Saturday night," but this doesn't hold true in the gifted hands of playwright Churchill, who peppers her targets with wit and outrageous fun, and skewers them with stiletto heels. There are 23 actors, and many of these play several roles; they all talk fast, and sometimes at the same time. The characterizations lack nuance - there's the grabbing of the derriere of a co-worker and frequent use of the expletive "What the f***", but Churchill's intention is to create a panorama, not a portrait, and if many of the characters (not all) look and sound alike, it's because these are cut from the same shabby cloth of greed. The cast is excellent, and I promised myself I wouldn't slight some actors by singling others out, but one actor carved out a brilliant cameo by simply speaking more slowly and canting his head. Each of the two acts ends wittily with rousing songs, wonderful and awesome, that involve the ensemble.

The heroes of the evening are the director, Christopher Owens, and his design staff. Owens shows his mettle with the furious but coherent pace, and a hilarious extended scene where the characters are kept in constant motion mounted on imaginary horses, waiting for a fox hunt to begin. It works beautifully, and must have been a bear to direct. The set, designed by Matthew Plamp, has five tiered levels, and works well to convey whatever - a trading pit, cocktail lounge, hotel lobby, airplane, country estate or paddock, aided by projections that quickly identify the locale, which end up amusingly with photos of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan - yes, the time period is 1987. The changes are accomplished with quicksilver speed through lighting shifts designed by Gregory Starbird, and the excellent choreography is by Becky Valls.

Playwright Churchill is admirably eclectic in her use of stagecraft - the unexpected songs are one example - but not all her ideas work equally well. She uses rhyming couplets in the dialogue, which is largely unobtrusive in the first act, as the furor of the trading pit masks much of it, but is unfortunately harder to ignore in the quieter second act. It does show that she is clever, but it is doggerel, not Shakespearean. The sardonic plot shines through, however, revealing humankind's venality and selfish strivings, and the conniving and corruption of financial managers and Britain's Tory government. The entire approach is rollicking good humor, interspersed with moments of tension and confrontation, and both are fun to observe. A quarter of a century has passed since the play premiered, but, needless to say, it is as timely today as ever.

The verdict:

Top-drawer direction by Christopher Owens and a large and talented cast bring to life the shark-like feeding frenzy of financial traders in London, and playwright Caryl Churchill's vivid imagination makes all this rollicking fun - and she throws in two show-stopping musical numbers as well.

Serious Money continues through October 7 at the Jose Quintero Theatre, University of Houston, 133 Wortham. For ticketing or information, call 713-743-2929.

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Jim Tommaney