Director Rick Campbell chooses to open Ray Cooney’s play, Funny Money, at the South Park Theatre with the song “Love and Marriage.” The tune provides a peppy backdrop as housewife Jean Perkins (Renee Ruzzi-Kern) completes the finishing touches for a party in preparation for her husband’s imminent arrival. Ruzzi-Kern carries Jean with enviably straight posture; she’s a woman who’s clearly proud of her domain.
Costume designer J. Childe Pendergast immediately conjures a 1950s aesthetic with Jean’s high heels, starched white apron, and pearl necklace complete with matching bracelet and earrings. You immediately get the sense Jean would consider it akin to blasphemy to wear one item in the pearl jewelry trio without the others. When Jean carries out a fondant-covered birthday cake, it’s unquestionably homemade. In a thoughtful detail by Campbell, Jean swipes a particle of cake from the platter, licking it off of her finger, making manifest the extent of rebellion in the orderly Perkins home.
This establishing scene of domestic tranquility is set up only to be overturned in short order. The well-polished Jean is a foil to her husband, Henry (Bob Rak), an overweight, nondescript businessman in a rumpled suit and tie, which Rak plays with natural ease. Henry comes in clutching a briefcase, which proves to be the center of the play’s narrative. Henry accidentally switched his briefcase with another traveler on the underground. That person walked away with Henry’s briefcase of work papers, a scarf, and gloves while Henry made off with 735,000 British pounds of cash in 50-pound notes. (While not a production issue, the play itself never mentions the obvious delta in weight between the identical briefcases that one unavoidably considers.)
The crisis at large is how to handle the cash-stuffed briefcase. Jean unequivocally says they should turn it in to the police. Henry has already paused at the pub on the way home to down a few double whiskeys, count the loot, and consider a plan. As an accountant, he assumes the funds must be ill-gotten “payment for an illicit transaction.” This effectively clears his conscious to keep the money. He’s already rationalized the windfall as compensation for a diligent life of hard work with minimal reward.
With morality cleared, there’s still a wrinkle. Henry’s briefcase includes his work information. Consequently, he knows the other briefcase owner, whom he deems “Mr. Nasty,” will find him at the office come Monday. He also correctly hypothesizes that someone will be after Mr. Nasty for the missing funds, whom he names “Mr. Big.” Henry’s gendered norms unquestionably and immediately ascribe male identity to the supposed criminals. Director Rick Campbell surprises us and nicely turns this gendered assumption on its head when “Mr. Big” eventually materializes and is in fact played by a woman (Sandy Boggs).
Henry’s solution is that he and Jean flee the country immediately. He books them a first-class flight to Barcelona. Jean bemoans, “I liked you as a bit of a wimp,” but Henry’s personality isn’t the only one to change in the face of funds. The stressed-out Jean drinks alcohol for the first time and then finds her happy place as she slugs back the brandy. As a novice drinker, Ruzzi-Kern isn’t a sloppy drunk until too late in the production. Campbell could have paced her going blotto a bit better.
It’s never easy to get out the door to the airport. This play takes that to new heights as a whole host of characters end up rotating through the Perkins home as the waiting taxi guns it curbside. It’s hard not to feel a twinge of impatience as the antics continue to mount, and it all gets vaguely tiring somewhere in act two. Two cops, a cab driver, and the couple (Vic and Betty Johnson as played by Stephen Toth and Kauleen Cloutier) who were coming over for what was initially a planned celebration of Henry’s birthday keep the doors and identities revolving.
Vic and Betty Johnson as a couple are a relative facsimile of Henry and Jean. Toth’s Vic in his navy v-neck sweater is forgettably fine. Cloutier’s Betty bubbles over with a lovable wit and charm that’s accentuated by Pendergast’s costume, a pastel pink dress with black polka dots. Cloutier easily steals her scenes as she eagerly jumps in to help the Perkins’ plan succeed, pretending to be Jean’s sister, Adelaide, from Australia. Everyone’s world order is turned topsy-turvy in the course of the night. As the play finally concludes, one can’t help but wonder about some tough conversations to come the morning after.
South Park Theatre’s production of Funny Money continues through September 8th. For more details, visit South Park Theatre online
Categories: Archived Reviews