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"Old Money," by Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwright Wendy Wassserstein (who took those prizes and more for her 1988 play “The Heidi Chronicles”), is a sprawling, intricate tale of two centuries. Its various narrative crossroads converge on one frail, lonely man near the end of his life.
Sprawling in scope and unhurried in pacing, the play requires patience as its large cast are introduced (each actor plays two roles that span past and present) and its dramatic foundations gradually accrue. However its rewards are similarly large and deep in scale, with voluptuous characterizations and a novel’s worth of observation, commentary and invention packed into two and half hours of stage time in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production at the Sorenson Center at Babson College.
Now 75, Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer III (Will Lyman) — Vivian, for short — once lived in the stately Fifth Avenue mansion that’s now the scene of a celebrity-studded party to mark the grand home’s renovation. The year is 2000 and, as the 20th century gives way to the 21st, some social conventions have evaporated while others have held strong.
Vivian is a writer, architectural historian and professor at Columbia. He’s also the guest of Ovid Bernstein (Eliott Purcell), a young man looking to escape the shadow of his enormously wealthy investment banker father, Jeffrey (Jeremiah Kissel) and forge his own path. Ovid is too young to have much history of his own, but Jeffrey’s past is checkered with unexpected details: He wasn’t always monied and loving it. He used to work with a Head Start program and throw himself into other poorly-paid causes, but he’s got no regrets about his upward mobility: “The purpose of my fortune is there’s no glory in not having it,” he says, which is a useful summary for what Wasserstein sees as contemporary attitudes toward money.
Contrast that with the way Vivian’s grandfather, Tobias (Ed Hoopman), viewed his own wealth: as a means to substantive ends, like digging coal mines and establishing railroads. We’re given that contrast directly, as time shifts to the early 1900s right before Vivian’s astonished eyes. As modern partiers, with their eclectic wardrobes and shallow conversations, move outside (“There’s nothing I live for more than a summer quartet in a gazebo,” flutters one guest), a different cadre of players rolls in -- literally, in the case of Toby (Purcell), Vivian’s youthful father, who bounds in with playful energy to flirt with the maid, Mary (Josephine Moshiri Elwood). The dialogue hints that it’s August 1914, a time before Vivian’s birth but, like the others at the party, he too is playing a person from the past not unlike his familiar self — not an ancestor, but the mansion’s famed architect, Schuyler Lynch.
The gathering is of a different tenor, but the personalities and ambitions of those present are eerily similar (and strikingly dissimilar) to those from nearly a century later. (We even hear the line about quartets and gazebos repeated — or pre-peated? — but with a plummy sense of entitlement this time, rather than dead-souled fatuousness.) In both scenarios, this occasion has among its action items the question of a museum board membership to consider.
In 1914, the candidate is Arnold Strauss (Kissel), whose knowledge of art is both broad and deep — but just a hair less encyclopedic than is deemed necessary. In 2000, it’s a crass movie producer, the too-aptly named Sid Nercessian (Hoopman), who’s hoping to cement his status among the high society set by getting a place on the board. He possesses what now passes for the requisite qualifications: the right connections and a bank account fattened by revenue from Hollywood fare like “Call of the Wild 3” and a Matt Damon-starring remake of “Citizen Kane.”
Sid, like Jeffrey, relies on money to buy something he doesn’t feel he could have without it. In Sid’s case it’s respect, which is harder for the old money crowd to part with than its lucre, and which his teenage daughter, Caroline (Elwood) isn’t about to give him in any case. Caroline sees her father for the philistine he is, and she doesn’t hesitate to observe that it’s Sid’s money that’s bought his new wife, Penny (Jordan Clark), the chance to distinguish herself among the world’s most acclaimed lingerie designers. It’s no surprise to learn that Caroline is depressive and given to suicide attempts; life, as it’s been modeled to her, has everything to do with the ruthless principles of commerce, while gentler influences such as art have been sidelines, sidelined, pre-packaged, and monetized.
Thankfully, love is just as timeless and pervasive as money, and as the play progresses various couplings form both in the past and in the present. Ovid and Caroline are taken with each other at first sight (much as Toby and the maid, Mary, are attracted to one another); Jeffrey’s “society consultant,” a gossip columnist and husband hunter named Flinty McGee (Amanda Collins), puts on a full court press to seduce him; and even Vivian finds that it’s not too late to make meaningful connections as he and Ovid’s Aunt Saulina (Veronica Anastasio Wiseman), a once-rising sculptor, find that they fit each other with instant comfort.
The most surprising pair-up takes place as past and present interface with each other, yesterday’s industrialist engaging in a philosophical chat with today’s nouveau riche banker even as the flummoxed -- but gratified — Vivian looks on. Jeffrey makes the boast that he could earn the entirety of Tobias’ vast fortune in an afternoon; Tobias ripostes that Jeffrey could lose it just as fast, and points out that wealth in the future is illusory anyway, because it’s all just numbers with no infrastructure or goods to back it all up. (In this, Wasserstein demonstrates prescience: The Great Recession struck seven years after this play’s premiere.) What counts isn’t what we can stack and tally; it’s what — and, more precisely, who — we bring into the world that adds to the value of human life as a whole. Children, Tobias declares, are our only truly important legacy, despite -- or maybe because — of the ways in which they diverge from the plans and preconceptions of their parents.
Jon Savage’s scenic design -- which has a suitably wide-canvas geometry about it — is classy in a way that defies time, and it serves as the bedrock for the play’s hops between eras. Costumer Charles Schoonmaker gives us visual shorthand to help sort out the characters, with the early 20th-century garb looking so authentically vintage, and the wardrobe from the year 2000 so of its moment, that in this case clothes really do make the dramatis personae. As an enjoyable side effect, the costumes underscore the work of the actors, who strike a tricky balance between carrying defining qualities between the two sets of characters and honing very different sets of motivation, mindset and values systems. Brian Lilienthal’s lighting helps, too, as he bathes the past in a warm golden hue and douses the present in cooler tints of blue.
“Old Money” has the evergreen virtues of depth, complexity and staying power. Expect to take this one with you into the future, because you’ll be pondering it for days (if not years) to come.
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production of “Old Money” continues through March 18 at the Sorenson Center at Babson College.
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