≈ [Almost Equal To]
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
City Garage Theatre
Through July 2
In addition to challenging the Stage Raw copy editing department with a title that uses one of those squiggly math signals, playwright Jonas Hassen Khemeri’s powerful drama embraces such a multitude of themes that it’s hard to adequately sum them up. One thing’s for sure, though: Donald Trump would hate the work’s incredibly scathing invective against capitalism.
In fact, money may not be the most evil thing in the world, according to Khemeri. Rather, money is but a catalyst that greases the diabolical mechanisms of greed, corruption and desperation. It isn’t that the characters in his play want money in particular; it’s that they’re driven by desire for the power and freedom that can only be obtained with buckets of filthy cash.
Mani (Andrew Loviska) is a young college adjunct who teaches economics,while secretly hoping to develop a new economic theory that will replace capitalism with some kind of mutually altruistic trade system. Still, he’s as ambitious as any other academic to get a tenure track job — and living beyond his means in expectation of one. At the same time, Mani’s wife Martina (Lindsay Plake) slaves for a living at a nearby mini-mart, becoming more and more resentful of her dead end job until she starts stealing from the cash register to fund a better life for herself.
Loviska also plays the part of Andrej, a Russian immigrant who is desperate to find a middle class job so as to haul his mother (Sandy Mansson) and his younger brother (Jeffrey Gardner) out of a life of grinding poverty. He develops a psychotic hatred for the homeless man (Johanny Paulino), who, it seems to Andrej, rakes in a fortune from panhandling.
Director Frederique Michel’s staging strikes a perfect balance between irony and sympathy for characters whose actions grow increasingly dark and grim. The work is more accessible and emotionally involving than many of Michel’s productions: It’s a play about people prevented by circumstance from living the lives they think they deserve — and the darkness that grows in the soul as a result of that.
The writing and the performances crackle with a bitter and incendiary tone, but Michel leavens the Ayn Rand-esque cruelty with touches of her trademark whimsy — frequent interruptions by a cartoonish 19th century economist (Bo Roberts) or hilariously sour-faced digressions from a mean employment counsellor (Ann Bronston). As a Swedish writer and critic, Khemiri frequently approaches American-style capitalism with a distaste that almost borders on the shrill, but his points are made with admirable precision and tenderness.
Performances are subtle and sensitive, particularly Loviska’s compassionate turns as both the adjunct and the Russian immigrant. As a member of City Garage’s stalwart ensemble, Loviska is emerging as a performer of remarkable depth; his acting possesses such an undercurrent of emotional danger that you can’t easily predict how a scene in which he appears is likely to go. Plake’s performance as the store clerk is surprisingly complex as well — she’s likable, even as she evolves into a creature of harrowing selfishness.
City Garage, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.;, Sun,. 7 p.m.; through July 2. (310) 453-9939 or www.citygarage.org. Running time: two hours with a 15 minute intermission.