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Caryl Churchill play gets serious about money

Maya Phillips | 7/11/2013, 1:40 p.m. | Updated on 7/11/2013, 1:40 p.m.

As PR consultant Dolcie Starr says in Caryl Churchill’s “Serious Money,” “There’s ugly greedy and sexy greedy,” and “Serious Money,” with all of its greed, is seductive in all the right ways. The Potomac Theatre Project brings Churchill’s play to life at the Atlantic Stage 2.

“Serious Money” takes place in the mid-1980s in London, right after the Big Bang—the deregulation of the British financial markets. The world of finance and trade is changing, with many of the lower-class “yabos” and “cockies,” as they’re derogatorily called, crowding the trading floor and taking over.

The action of the play revolves around a big business deal: Ruthless corporate bigwig Billy Corman tries to take over a company called Albion, and other big players get involved and manipulate and sabotage their way to more profits. Meanwhile, Jake Todd, one of the intermediaries between the players—who secretly receives quite the paycheck of his own for shifting information to and fro—dies in what could have been a suicide or a murder. With several millions on the line and the government on his tail, Corgan and his American banker, Zac Zackerman, try to follow through on this deal, while the scheming and money-hungry Scilla Todd tries to find out the details surrounding her brother’s death.

Churchill is a smart, inventive playwright whose imagination knows no bounds. Her plays are teeming with energy and characters and noise and colors, and “Serious Money” is no different. You might think that the stock market suit-and-ties are kind of drab, but not in Churchill’s world. And it is, in fact, Churchill’s world—a separate world of money and machinations. The overlapping voices, the barrage of constantly rotating characters, the entangled plot and the two random dance numbers—it’s a lot to take in and definitely a lot for a director and cast to handle. Fortunately, the Potomac Theatre Project serves up all the madness and humor without breaking a sweat.

“Serious Money” is comedic, but not in a way that condescends to the audience. Quite the contrary, Churchill fully indulges in the stock market and business terminology and sets full scenes within the pandemonium of the exchanges. Her jokes point out differences in class and the overall cultural obsession with materialism.

The play is a difficult one, and not just because of the vocabulary (don’t worry if you’re not fluent in trader-speak; the program includes a glossary of terms for the uninitiated). Churchill demands quite a bit from her actors, many of whom play two, three or even four parts. Actors must quickly switch characters—posture, costume and, most impressively, accent—sometimes within the span of a single scene. Not to mention the fact that all the dialogue of “Serious Money” rhymes. So, it’s only fitting that a play that has a rhythm drilled into its backbone would also sport some musical numbers, right? They’re random, campy and a little off-kilter, but somehow, the musical numbers fit perfectly into the absurdity and humor of the show.

Due to the terminology, the characters, the entangled plot, the pacing and the overall movement of the show, “Serious Money” demands more audience attention than some other plays, but it is more than deserved.

“Serious Money,” is playing at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 W. 16th St.) through Aug. 4. For more information, visit http://ptpnyc.org.