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Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

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In just a few short weeks, the world will observe the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Even though Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, part of his legacy lives on in the most perverse way imaginable.

One of bin Laden's stated goals was to bring about the total financial collapse of the American economy. Although bin Laden may no longer be alive to accomplish the job, it seems as if the congressional members of the Tea Party are determined to do it for him. In an article entitled "The Tea Party's Terrorist Tactics" that was posted on Politico on July 29, William Yeomans wrote:

It has become commonplace to call the tea party faction in the House 'hostage takers.' But they have now become full-blown terrorists. They have joined the villains of American history who have been sufficiently craven to inflict massive harm on innocent victims to achieve their political goals. A strong America has always stood firm in the face of terrorism. That tradition is in jeopardy, as Congress and President Barack Obama careen toward an uncertain outcome in the tea party-manufactured debt crisis.

Our military's oath of enlistment (as well as the oath for commissioned officers) reads as follows:

I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

Who would have thought that, in his roles as president and Commander in Chief, Barack Obama would have to defend the Constitution against political and economic terrorists -- in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the United States Senate -- who were willing to risk default in order to pursue a radical ideological agenda? Although the compromise reached Sunday night to raise the debt ceiling left both sides indignant and feeling betrayed, let me recommend four recent articles that dissect the crisis from a more level-headed and less outraged perspective:

Each time I hear venal pundits and delusional Republicans spewing misinformed bile about the so-called "liberal agenda" or "gay agenda," I'm amazed at their inability to examine the wreckage left in the wake of their own "conservative agenda." Let's face facts: When it comes to reckless spending, a lack of ethics, and the absence of any kind of moral compass, nobody can beat the Republicans at their own game.

The sad truth is that, following the binge-and-bust cycles of the Bush administration, we're left in a particularly unpleasant situation. In the following clip, Judy Garland and Mel Tormé sing that classic song from 1956's hit musical, Bells Are Ringing: "The Party's Over."

How people act when they are broke and desperate offers a keen insight into their priorities. Are they able to step up and do the right thing? Or have their souls become so twisted, their priorities so warped, their appetites so depraved, and their behavior so dysfunctional that the harm they might inflict on others doesn't even matter to them.

The key to understanding such twisted behavior lies in a person's ability to rationalize his actions. A friend of mine who was heavily into S&M once insisted that "The reason lawyers make the best bottoms is because they'll do absolutely anything! "

A perfect example of exuberant amorality can be found in the Act I finale of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. In the following video clip, Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) and Sweeney Todd (George Hearn) hatch a culinary scheme to get rich quick:

Just when you think there could be no new twist on the age old combination of greed and corruption, two new dramedies allow audiences to view financial crisis management through opposing lenses of comedy and tragedy (proving, once again, that denial is not just some river in Egypt).

* * * * * * * * * *

In describing how he came to ridicule Nazis in the stage and film versions of The Producers, comedian Mel Brooks stressed that:

I was never crazy about Hitler. If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win. That's what they do so well; they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter -- they can't win. You show how crazy they are.

That's exactly what Brooks achieved in his legendary musical number, "Springtime for Hitler":

More recently, playwrights seem to be going after unscrupulous mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers. Bennett Fisher's two farces, Hermes and Pure Baltic Avenue, showed a solid understanding of how the masters of financial speculation conduct their business.

Patricia Milton's new play, Reduction in Force, just received its world premiere from Berkeley's Central Works and it is a doozy! Billed as "a new comedy about back-stabbing, ass-kissing, and survival of the sneakiest," it has been directed by Gary Graves with a grand sense of timing and snarky revenge. The play's three characters are

  • Gabby Deeds (Kendra Lee Oberhauser), a fast talking, narcissistic, and extremely manipulative hedge fund manager at Icarus Wealth Management Group who has clawed her way up the corporate ladder by becoming a back-stabbing bitch. Gabby (who lacks the morals of an addict) excels at using her sexual appetite as a form of ass-et management. On a good day, she uses her power with clinical detachment and knows how to bluff like the male jocks who surround her (one of her more irritating habits is shouting into her ear phone as if the other people in the room can't hear her or simply don't exist). Willing to take incredible risks by short selling stocks, she is easily tempted by the thought of betting on the economic outcome of a Category 5 hurricane that bears her name. Gabby has no hesitation about using other people's money. In fact, she's convinced there's no way she would ever get any blowback from one of her clients, The Little Sisters of Something Or Other who, according to to Gabby, live in a "coven" instead of a "convent." Those nuns wouldn't dare question her. After all, they've taken a vow of poverty and been sworn to secrecy!


Gabby Deeds (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) is a reckless
hedge fund manager in Patricia Milton's new play,
Reduction in Force (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

  • Anita Green (Jan Zvaifler), Gabby's long-suffering administrative assistant whose husband dumped her, leaving Anita as the sole support of their two teenage sons. Anita is the plain Jane and loyal employee who tries to act as her boss's conscience (if only Gabby had one). Not only does Anita know the ins and outs of the Icarus software, she is extremely well networked with the company's other administrative assistants (many of whom are being laid off and escorted from the building). Anita has a multi-pronged Leatherman Surge device which she is often tempted to use for purposes of revenge. Although she knows all of Gabby's professional and sexual secrets, above all else Anita desperately needs to hold onto her job.

Mitch (John Patrick Moore) and Anita (Jan Zvaifler)
become unlikely allies in Patricia Milton's
Reduction in Force (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

  • Mitch Brinkman (John Patrick Moore), a frustrated actor Gabby is considering hiring as a possible replacement for Anita. Although Mitch has appeared in corporate training films about sexual harassment and worked as an "executive runner" at Goldman Sachs, he has only been at Icarus for two weeks. During that time, he has been shocked to discover that a career in financial services might actually be a riskier venture than a career in regional theatre. Mitch's strong improvisational skills come in handy whenever there is a need for a team player with an exceptional talent for kissing ass.

Mitch (John Patrick Moore) holds a briefcase filled with
more than half a million dollars in Patricia Milton's
Reduction in Force (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

The fun begins when Gabby announces that, due to a "reduction in force," she's going to have to make a choice between Anita and Mitch (only one of whom will be able to stay on as an employee of Icarus). While Gabby derives great satisfaction from pitting her two subordinates against each other, the last thing she expects is that they would team up against her and plot to bring down Icarus.

  • Using Gabby's computer password, Anita and Mitch get her heavily invested in tropical storm Gabriele, only to "discover" that the storm has suffered a "reduction in force" to a light mist.
  • When Anita uses her Leatherman Surge to pry open the lock on the attaché case Mitch was supposed to deliver, they discover nearly $750,000 in cash. Instead of taking the money and running for the hills, they use it to bribe a previously corrupted federal regulator (who is already on the premises) to do his job.
  • As Anita monitors the growing mob scene outside the corporate headquarters of Icarus (her two sons are competing against 2,000 other applicants for jobs at the big box retail store across the street), she coaches her boys in what they can use as a battering ram. In no time at all, she learns that the angry crowd has toppled the statue of Alan Greenspan that proudly stood in her employer's courtyard.

Revenge may indeed be a dish that is best served cold, but watching these three quick thinkers desperately juggling power like a hot potato is vastly entertaining. Reduction in Force is that all-too-rare theatrical bird: an intelligent, fast-moving farce about high-risk dysfunctional behavior in the nation's most precarious financial markets.

For anyone who has played the stock market, lost money in the stock market, or hates the people who specialize in manipulating the stock market, this show is not to be missed. Performances of Reduction in Force continue at the Berkeley City Club through August 28.

* * * * * * * * * *

While Gabby may like to take work breaks with "Mr. Yummypants" two floors below that include cocaine and handcuffs, all of the criminal activity at the Icarus Wealth Management Group is done on computers and is strictly of the white collar type. Things get more brutal and bloody in Polish Bar, an intense new indie film written and directed by Ben Berkowitz that was recently screened at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The backstory to Polish Bar can be summed up in one simple question: "What's a nice Jewish boy doing selling drugs to lowlifes while working as a Hip hop deejay in a strip club owned by goyim?" Reuben (Vincent Piazza) essentially leads a double life:

  • During the day, he works for his Uncle Sol (Judd Hirsch), in a family-owned jewelry store on Chicago's Wabash Avenue.
  • At night, he works for a Polish gangster named Joe (Meat Loaf) whose strippers include a blonde named Mama (Pamela Shaw) and an African American named Ebony (Golden Brooks).

Reuben (Vincent Piazza) with Ebony (Golden Brooks) in Polish Bar

Reuben's schizophrenic lifestyle is heavily influenced by the people he meets through his work.

  • During the day, he makes a reasonable salary working with conservative Jews who have a strong sense of ethics and Talmudic law.
  • At night, he and his friend Tommy (James Badge Dale) sell cocaine to a regular group of clients.

The pressure starts to build when Reuben's connection, Fat Moe (Chingy), suddenly can't provide him with any more cocaine.

  • Although Reuben has never gotten along well with his mother, (Janet Ulrich Brooks), he is able to communicate with her second husband, Hershel (Richard Belzer). An attorney with a deep-seated love for jazz, Hershel gets as much pleasure from his old LP records as Reuben gets from using his turntables to create new sounds.
  • As Reuben's drug clients start to become unglued, Uncle Sol insists that Reuben let his cousin Moises (Dov Tiefenbach) stay at his apartment for a weekend.
  • Moises, who once was quite a druggie himself, is now living clean and has found a new life as an Orthodox Jew. He is eager to have Reuben pray with him.
  • Meanwhile, Grandpa Avram (Maury Cooper) is dying. Reuben is horrified to visit his atheistic grandfather in the hospital and see Moises trying to "lay Tefillin" on Avram's weakened body.
  • Ebony's younger brother Dawan (Maestro Harrell) has entered the bar and watched his sister's strip act.
  • Mama's suggestion that Reuben and Tommy join her in a threeway has provoked an unexpectedly violent outburst from the closeted Polish thug (who has a secret crush on Reuben).
  • The only way Reuben can keep his cocaine business alive is to find $20,000 with which to purchase a kilo from Fat Moe.

Poster art for Polish Bar

Needless to say, Reuben's increasing desperation for the $20,000 leads him to the safe in Uncle Sol's jewelry store. Upon discovering the theft, Sol promptly fires the innocent José (Joe Minoso). When Ebony attacks Reuben during an argument in the bar, he ends up in jail. Neither Joe nor Tommy come to his rescue, but Hershel gets him released from prison.

The shame is too much for Reuben's mother to handle. After learning of Reuben's deceit, Uncle Sol doesn't even want him to sit shiva with the family following Avram's death. Torn with guilt, Reuben pays his respects to his grandfather at the funeral home, where a Rabbi (Bernie Landis) tries to comfort the young man with the knowledge that staying up all night with the dead is the biggest and most generous mitzvah possible. Why? Because a dead man can't thank him for what he's done.

Uncle Sol (Judd Hirsch) with Reuben (Vincent Piazza ) in Polish Bar

In his director's statement, Ben Berkowitz writes:

"Polish Bar evolved out of the things I was doing to pay the bills between making films. I worked on 47th Street in Manhattan, the world's largest and busiest jewelry district. Millions upon millions of dollars worth of precious stones and metals permeate the area. When you walk along 47th Street you feel it surrounding you, drawing you in like a magnet. When I returned to Chicago I spent a lot of time in Jewelers Row on Wabash Avenue. At night I would earn extra money DJing at a strip club. I began to see similarities between the grimy strip club and the glossy sleaze of Jewelers Row. Both harbor such desperation, greed, manipulation, and countless levels of deception. Everyone competes for the customer's money and a food chain is created."

Polish Bar is very much the story of someone who, caught in a tight spot, has no choice but to "do what he's gotta do." It's an impressive drama that, as a meticulously-cast independent film, has a gritty style all its own. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape

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