Arts Beat LA

Deborah Klugman
Arts Beat LA
2014-01-25

In Kos Kostmayer’s On the Money, directed by Tom Ormeny, three overworked and underpaid employees with pressing financial problems debate whether or not to steal from their boss whose sole concern is his own profit.

The first thing you notice about the scenario, which takes place in the 1980s, is that the indifferent employer has a face – a real human persona – unlike today, when the lack of concern for workers’ welfare seems to take place exclusively at the behest of cyclopean machines, with no flesh-and-blood person at the lever in view.

So it’s almost comforting to have this clash about money and morals played out in an intimate non-corporate setting: the lounge section of a bar and restaurant in New York City some 30 years ago. The people who work there are Benny the waiter (David Fraioli), who plays the horses and needs to pay back his debts or else, Nancy the waitress (Maria Tomas) a single mom raising her bullied daughter in a rough neighborhood, and Jack the bartender (Jonathan Kells Phillips), an actor with a wife and three kids who would love to move to California but hasn’t got the bucks. Like Benny, he’s in debt to a dangerous bookie Wallace (Tony Maggio) – not someone you want to mess with. Jack’s a straight-arrow guy who believes in playing by the rules, and it is the wearing-away of his resistance to breaking them that creates the compelling through-line of the drama. Reluctant to embrace Benny’s scheme to hire a burglar to steal the bar’s cash, he’s finally pushed to the edge after his boss Candy (Vincent Guastaferro) berates him for defending himself against Wallace; the final straw comes when Candy arbitrarily withholds money from Jack’s paycheck for funds gone missing, a discrepancy that is likely Candy’s own doing. While there’s some staginess to be weathered at the top, it dissolves once Guastaferro’s narcissistic businessman makes his entrance, his smartly-etched combination of salt-of-the-earth combativeness and cocky sense of entitlement furnishing the conflict’s incendiary spark. (So convincing is Guastaferro as this hard-assed Philistine that it’s something of a leap when the character pulls back to reveal the empathy he’s hitherto seemed incapable of demonstrating.)

As for Phillips’ barman, at first Jack comes off as a secondary player, a stable foil for his more agitated and colorful co-workers – particularly Benny, an inveterate gambler whose sizable debt to Wallace spurs his scheming plans. But as the noose around Jack tightens, and as, imperiled, he evolves toward the dramatic center, Phillips reveals the strength and nuance that he as an actor is capable of. It helps that Maggio’s hoodlum is effectively menacing, and that Jeff Kober’s turn as an oddball customer who keeps returning to the bar – each time a little loopier – plays unpredictably and persuasively. Some of the minor performances need tightening, and Tomas could dig deeper in her rendering of the beleaguered Nancy.

Kostmayer, whose plays and screenplays include I Love You to Death – a droll, offbeat comedy which featured Tracy Ullman as an obsessively jealous wife out to do in her philandering spouse, played by Kevin Kline – knows all about neuroses, fear and obsession, and instills them into his characters and their circumstances with humor and pathos. On the Money was first staged at the Victory Theatre Center in 1983, and this revival, under Ormeny’s direction, preserves the meaningful relevance that spurred its initial acclaim.

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