Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Review - Big Money - Sandbox Theatre - Yet Another All-American Con Artist - 3.5 stars

People sometimes wonder why writers write the things they write.  Or why theaters put on the plays they do.  That goes double in the case of Sandbox Theatre because they create all their own work.  So it’s not just a theater company reading a bunch of plays someone else has already written and deciding, “We’ll present this story.”  They consider a bunch of ideas collectively as a company and if someone is lobbying hard for a particular idea, and brings other company members around, eventually that idea’s time will come. 

“You make a blueprint.  You build a house.  You drop it on the witch.”

With Big Money, that idea is the story of real-life 1980s game show celebrity turned huckster Michael Larson - a little guy from Ohio who wins it big in Los Angeles on the game show Press Your Luck, then tries for the rest of his life to recreate that “luck” gaming any system that crosses his path. Sadly for Larson (perhaps luckily for the rest of us), he came along before the internet and reality TV permanently invaded all our lives. Otherwise he might have had an easier time spinning his one day of glory into a lifetime of lucrative fame-whoring. Instead he lived in a world of few TV channels where TV could just as easily ignore you and make you disappear as catapult you into the spotlight. That frustration makes Larson dangerous - to himself and others.

“You have lived almost a complete life.”

As usual, the Sandbox ensemble has meticulously researched their subject.  The next day, the friend who attended the show with me actually looked up online the episode of the game show Press Your Luck where Larson earned his fortune, and he reported back that Sandbox had recreated the whole show in impressive detail.  Project lead Derek Lee Miller and director Theo Langason clearly know their subject well and delight in bringing audiences into that world.  They’ve gathered an ensemble of performers that includes fellow Sandbox vets Peter Heeringa (as our anti-hero Michael Larson), and Derek Meyer (in a multitude of roles but primarily harried Press Your Luck game show host Peter Tomarken), along with new Sandbox collaborators Emma Larson, Cameron Mielicke, Cortez Owens, Sarah Parker, and Eric Weiman. 

“What are you gonna do with all that money?”

The design team here is also key, since they’re conjuring up the 1980s (which I have to admit, even as someone who lived through that decade, feels further and further away in the past all the time).  Tim Donahue’s music and sound design and Heidi Eckwall’s lights open up Leazah Behrens’ scenic design which serves primarily as the game show TV studio but takes us to many different places before the evening is over.  And of course, Mandi Johnson’s costume design gives us a constant visual reminder that we are in that awkward decade of fashion, 1980s America.

“I am the smartest man I have ever met.”

So Sandbox has their subject down, and have provided it with enviable packaging.  The struggle for me as an audience member was that I think I was supposed to, at least initially, take a liking to Michael Larson, even to root for him as the underdog trying to win against the odds.  Later, when his actions clearly cross the line to land him on the wrong side of the law, my initial good feeling toward him should have unknowingly dragged me over that line with him.  But I found myself disliking, even repulsed by, Larson from the very start. 

“You think you’re a shark.  There are bigger sharks.”

This may be partly my own fault.  I wish now that I hadn’t read the timeline provided in the program.  (I can’t resist handy dramaturgical information.)  Knowing the kind of shady things Larson would end up doing probably colored my response to his formative years and game show antics.  It’s not the actor’s fault.  Heeringa is a charismatic lead to build a show around.  He carries the show on his shoulders with an ease that makes you forget how hard it can be to have to hold the stage from beginning to end as the central focus of a story.  The rest of the ensemble creates the world he inhabits, so he has the best of support.  But it’s still Michael Larson’s world we’re living in here.

“The magic only works when you want to be lied to.”

Larson’s cutthroat schoolboy years cornering the candy market among his fellow students has its charm.  But his other two pre-game show scams lost me.  Apparently back in the 1980s in Ohio, if you opened a new account at a bank, they would put hundreds of dollars in your account as an incentive.  So Larson would open an account, immediately withdraw the bank’s gift money, and close the account; then head over to another bank and do the same thing - repeatedly.  Yes, it’s hard to feel sorry for banks; they should be easy to root against - “go, Larson! stick it to The Man!”  But banks are made up of people who work there.  So I didn’t see him going up against a heartless institution, I saw him swindling people (which he does later in life a lot more directly).

“I’m not evil.  I’m an educated person.”

The next system Larson plays fast and loose with is unemployment insurance. He registers a business under his brother (Eric Weiman)’s name, then hires and fires himself from a non-existent job, and files for unemployment payments.  So not only is he taking money he isn’t really entitled to, he’s dragging his brother’s name into the mess.  By the time Larson is figuring out the trick to the system to make a killing on Press Your Luck, and hogging the spotlight from his long-suffering fellow contestants and the host, I’m already done with the guy.

“She must have chosen him for some reason.”

There’s a missed opportunity sitting right in the middle of Big Money.  The Sandbox crew comes close to exploiting it but fails to take full advantage.  Michael Larson has a wife and daughter (Sarah Parker, Emma Larson - no [actual] relation).  We meet them, and we even get some of the framework of that set of relationships, but we never live inside of them long enough to really understand them.  Larson’s wife Teresa McGlynn Dinwitty (Parker) actually gets a lot of stage time, but I don’t think it’s used well.  Teresa married Larson not once, not twice but three times.  What makes a person do that?  They married, and divorced, and married, and divorced, and then once more entered a common law marriage arrangement and have a child together before everything finally comes undone for good. 

“The more they charge, the more their advice is worth.”

What is it about Larson that keeps Teresa coming back?  It’s not money.  The first two marriages he didn’t have much.  Even Larson admits he’s not the best looking guy on the block so what is it?  If we could understand why Teresa fell in love with Larson in the first place -  If we could understand why, after divorcing him, she’d marry him again -  If we could understand why, after divorcing him a second time, she’d agree to live with him and raise a family yet again -  If we could understand that, if we could fall in love with him against our better instincts, just like Teresa did, maybe even more than once, Big Money might work the way Sandbox seems to want it to work

“Joan is here and she has her mimosa, she’s ready to go.”

There’s even a moment in the play after his Press Your Luck win, when Larson is referencing another game show, one where couples play as a team.  Playing off of that premise - even just in an imaginary scenario as the play does later - might have been a clearer window into that marriage - and Larson as a person.  Because if we like and understand Larson better as a person, we might be more willing to follow him to places that we shouldn’t, and more readily question ourselves as an audience and a culture.  The imaginary game show we do get toward the end of the production is a delightful little slice of surreal payback, and almost the comeuppance Larson deserves.

“That brings us to the end of the game show, as well as the end of your life.”

Even as it is, Big Money is often a fascinating examination of narcissism and entitlement - and hey, that might come in handy in the near future.  You never can tell.  (Big Money is playing on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage on the lower level at Park Square Theater through 1/28/2017.)

3.5 Stars - Highly Recommended

(photography by Matthew Glover; Peter Heeringa as Michael Larson in Sandbox Theatre's Big Money)

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