This is certainly the case with Affluenza!, James Sherman's tart homage to the old French farceur Moliere, whose life mission was to satirize the upper crust. This comedy about the monied class, set in contemporary Chicago, unfolds completely in rhyming couplets. It's initially distracting, but by the middle of the first act and throughout the riotous second, you can't help but be impressed by how clever it is.
William Moore (Kip Niven) is the wheezing, appeasing holder of the cushy cash. His pouty, louty son, Jerome (Sean Grennan), doubts his inheritance because of the presence of Dawn (Jennifer James Bradshaw), a saucy, bossy vixen whom he suspects has a more sinister agenda than reading the classics to the old moneybags.
Jerome's partner in a plot to call Dawn's bluff is his nerdy, wordy cousin, Eugene (Martin English). Also fond of the loot is William's vain, inane ex-wife, Ruth (Merle Moores), who shows up demanding a down payment for new breasts and Botox injections. Eavesdropping throughout is William's quippy, snippy manservant, Bernard (Elijah Murray), who, conveniently for both William and the plot, has been to rabbinical school and also has a law degree.
Good comedies usually require a comic foil, a prototypical straight man (or woman) against whom the co-stars' bounce their jokes. Affluenza! doesn't have such a character because, thankfully, every actor here is bountifully gifted in comedic riches. Niven, for example, is much younger than the walking ATM he plays here, yet he finds fresh ways to animate a doddering man's twilight years. English's work as the goofy hanger-on recalls the best of a Don Knotts or a Tony Randall, and Murray's Bernard delivers with the kind of street-smart attitude that serves both the comedy and his character's ultimate goodness.
The women are equally terrific. Moores is also too young for her character, but she makes you forget it with her broad sense of how to play a broad. Bradshaw's Dawn is probably not unintentionally named; the role and the actress recall that great comic creation of Billie Dawn, the shrewdly air-headed blonde of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday. Bradshaw is genial in the first half, scandalously devious in the second, and she nails both with palpable sex appeal. (She's actually sexier in her specs.)
As good as the actors are, Sean Grennan's performance stands apart. Jerome is a wholly unlikable man-child -- a spoiled, profane brat who completes his emptiness with a mindless array of Ebay acquisitions. As transparent (sad, even) as Jerome is, Grennan paints him with astounding complexity.
High praise goes to director Mark Ciglar, who not only prods his cast to such comic heights but also displays their work with invention. A lesser director would have plotted out the show on a cliched comic grid; here, there's a studied madness to the action that never flags. Nice, too, are Del Unruh's glitzy set, which reeks of old money; Paul Hough's costumes, which ring true to each player's station; and Roger Stoddard's sound design, which meticulously attends to such details as the pleasant pop of a champagne cork.
Postscript: Bev Lichterman retires this month after 28 years as the Theater League's senior business manager, leaving with a scrapbook heavier with memorable shows and performances than headaches -- not that there hasn't been a good share of the latter.
With her inaugural show in 1977 (before the Theater League was even called the Theater League), a production of South Pacific with Jane Powell and the late Howard Keel, Lichterman faced her first brush with one theater nightmare: unhappy ticket holders. "It was to open on a Tuesday night, but the cast couldn't get here because of a snowstorm," she recalls. "I thought I'd go crazy from all the chaos in the lobby. And I remember thinking that anyone who goes into this business has to have their head examined."
She stuck it out, though, and she counts among her favorite moments as an audience member such shows as Evita, Les Miserables and A Chorus Line. She calls the last one of her favorites. "It gave me such a rush the first time I saw it," she says.
Lichterman, who happens to be Theater League president Mark Edelman's mother-in-law, will be toasted at the Hyatt this weekend by friends, family and co-workers. She's resolute, though, when she says she's not tempted to take up Edelman's offer to stick around. "It's been a wonderful experience, and Theater League feels like my baby," she says. "But it's time for younger people to come in."