Ponzi Schemes to Cash In on Famous Rip-off

By keeping the best character offstage, Ponzi, the new play by Elaine Romero getting its first production at Kitchen Dog Theater, perpetrates its own sly little scam on the audience. We never see "Jack," a much talked-about investment guru who guarantees an 8.5 percent return and accepts only those clients willing to sink a minimum of $6 million into his fund. Through the first act of the play, Jack is always in the next room or just down the hall. Sounds like a hell of a guy, though. "Jack is a genius," says Bryce (Max Hartman), a slick-talking social parvenu attending a charity cocktail bash with wife Allison (Diane Casey-Box). Jack's a guardian angel, a rainmaker, says Bryce. Yes, that Jack is something else. Too bad he's always someplace else, too.

Given the name of the play, we know from the jump that Jack's the Bernie Madoff of the piece. A Ponzi scheme is an investment ruse that pays dividends not from legit earnings but out of the contributions of new suckers until it collapses for lack of fresh money. Romero's play doesn't directly mention Madoff, who received and spent billions to keep his Ponzi operation afloat for decades before confessing his fraud. Instead, the script has Bryce, Allison and their new friend, shy heiress Catherine (Christina Vela), rehashing details of the old "airplane game," a pyramid ploy less sophisticated than Madoff's form of rip-off but every bit as illegal. When Catherine's antennae start to twitch at promises of big ROIs from the mysterious Jack, Bryce assures Catherine that Jack's on the up and up. "You don't know Jack," he says. There's your clue right there.

Catherine thinks she knows plenty. She's a sensible, if love-starved, gal. "I have seen fraud," she tells Bryce and Allison at the top of the play. "I can smell it from a mile away." She puts her B.S. detector on pause, however, when Bryce starts sniffing her neck every time Allison's not looking. "Every rich girl just wants to be loved for who she is," Catherine says. And who is Catherine? A lonely woman with $22 million in the bank.

Allison, played with a wonderfully crass swagger and unpolished honk by Casey-Box, sets out just the right bait to reel in Catherine, announcing that she and Bryce want to buy a couple of big-money tables at a charity gala Catherine's involved with. "I'm here to recruit aspiring philanthropists," Catherine tells Allison. "The museum, like all nonprofits, is a whore. They'll take money from anyone."

By the second act, everyone's status has changed, emotionally and financially. Catherine's beloved cat has died, making her so suicidal she records a video last will and testament. She falls into an affair with Bryce, whom she meets for hotel nooners. It takes her about $22 million to realize Bryce and Allison aren't who they said they were and that she's been swindled. And here's where Ponzi doesn't reward the audience's investment in the play's three interesting characters (plus that other guy). Suddenly, all forward motion stops as Catherine launches into a long soliloquy that sounds like the transcript of an Oprah episode. "Without money, who am I?" she wonders. She talks a good while about that before uttering the only solid laugh line: "Money is not like sex; money is supposed to last longer."

If it were an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which has done similar plots, the script would have given its bad guys some comeuppance and Catherine the chance to confront the creeps. As a piece of live theater, Ponzi, which beat out 250 other scripts to snag the mainstage slot of Kitchen Dog's 2011 New Works Festival, doesn't bother with anything as final and satisfying as that. The play merely lets its villains disappear, often on a yacht with the invisible Jack perhaps, leaving Catherine poorer, lonelier and wiser.

Staged by KDT co-artistic director Christopher Carlos, Ponzi benefits from the acting skills of its three strong leads, though there isn't much sexual buzz between Vela and Hartman in the bedroom scenes. The production does look hot. Scenery by Bryan Wofford suggests expensive interiors full of mauve marbles and brown leather furniture. Between scenes, images of tarot cards flash on walls, visual metaphors for the twists of fate befalling lovers and fools. Linda Blase's carefully nuanced lighting evokes more poetic rhythms than most of the dialogue.

The prolific Romero, whose plays Barrio Hollywood, iCuranderas! Serpents of the Clouds, Walk into the Sea and Something Rare and Wonderful have won her a long list of prestigious prizes and fellowships, has a good idea in Ponzi. But like its namesake, it promises plenty and just never pays off.

Next season, Kitchen Dog Theater will stage the regional premiere of one of the hottest new plays from 2010, Sara Ruhl's In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play, a comedy about the screwy treatment of "hysterical" women by the 19th century medical establishment. The play was nominated for three Tonys and was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist. Also on the boards at KDT next season: 26 Miles, a drama about parental kidnapping by Quiara Alegria Hudes; Collapse by KDT company member Allison Moore, inspired by the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis; The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; and the world premiere of Ruth by company member and Dallas playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, based on the Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner