First Nighter: A. R. Gurney's 'Love & Money' Doesn't Buy Happiness

When Love & Money begins with Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) confronting lawyer Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik) over the disposition of her will, it looks as if the new A. R. Gurney play is going to be substantive. Cornelia, you see, is planning to leave her impressively large gobs of money to charities, and this has Harvey worrying that her heirs--two grandchildren never seen--will contest the stipulations.

The assumption about Gurney's intent, however, is misplaced. A dramatist who often pulls back from the more shadowy implications of his plots, Gurney withdraws from those here so forcibly that patrons may experience a mild form of whiplash. In the end, the comedy (?)--a co-production of the SignatureTheatre and the Westport Country Playhouse, where Mark Lamos, who directed, is artistic director--is a minor trifle.

Your enjoyment of it will hinge on how fond of trifles you are. Love & Money is so mildly amusing as it passes that I'm writing this review as fast as I can so that even more of it won't fade from my memory before I finish.

Cornelia is rich, all right. The study--that Michael Yeargan has designed--where the action takes place and featuring its view of a staircase hung with tasteful landscape painting, confirms her wealth. Due to how wrong her late husband and two late children went as a result of being well heeled, Cornelia is convinced that money only corrupts. So she's giving it away to Save the Children, et cetera.

Harvey's concern is that Cornelia's grandchildren will object, and when she assures him they have already been mollified, he surprises her by producing a registered latter from a man claiming to be the son of her late daughter Louisa, whom Cornelia claims never married or had children. Hardly has the missive come out of its envelope when the doorbell rings and in quick time the letter's sender arrives--an African-American named Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown), who's been nicknamed "Scott" because of his declared passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Any committed theatergoer familiar with John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (there can't be many who aren't) will immediately wonder about Scott's authenticity, but it sure looks as if Cornelia hasn't spent much of her moolah on theater tickets.

To Harvey's consternation, Scott ingratiates himself with Cornelia by way of the love for Fitzgerald that she shares. He also shows her a typewritten letter he says he received from Louisa after she'd left him with his father's family and moved to France. There's also the overall charm he smilingly dispenses. It does seem strange, though, that with all his passion for Fitzgerald, he doesn't know the word "badinage."

Oh, well, he does get around Cornelia, but when Harvey has to leave for lunch with his girlfriend, Scott doesn't fare so well with Cornelia's crusty cook Agnes Munger (Pamela Dunlap) and with Juilliard student Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim). She's stopped by to test a spinet Cornelia is offering to donate to the school

It turns out Cornelia had the instrument converted to a player piano some time earlier so she could program it with many of the Cole Porter songs she adores. (Did Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda love Cole Porter? Undoubtedly they all knew each other in Paris, but I digress.) The talented piano offers Jessica an opportunity to sing one of the 1913 Yale grad's less well-known ditties, "Make It Another Old-Fashioned Please," which Kim does nicely. When Harvey returns from lunch with news relevant to Cornelia and Scott, he seizes--with an important aim in mind--the opportunity to reprise "Get Out of Town," another of Porter's wry ballads. Like Kim, Paulik makes his unexpected rendition an attention-getter.

About this time, Gurney decides to wind up his tale to fit today's trendy intermission less 90-minute format. In the name of a spoiler-free Love & Money account, no details will be listed as to how he does it. Certainly, nothing will be revealed about whether Scott is who he claims to be or whether Cornelia really cares one way or the other or whether Harvey prevails in his distrust of Scott.

But it's fair to say that a work with the elements of a more probing examination of the haves and the have-nots definitely dwindles into something that couldn't be more light-hearted and gay in the now nearly forgotten sense of the word. This, when money is blatantly prominent among the great contemporary American themes.

With Lamos deftly capturing Gurney's curious mood, the cast members can't be faulted. Anderman, who only leaves the stage for a short time when Cornelia goes to enjoy a cold-soup lunch with Scott, is lovely. Paulik does the hard-nosed lawyer well and then gets hilariously unstarched when he goes into his song. Brown is clever at keeping everyone guessing about what Scott is up to. Dunlap's no-nonsense maid is right on the, uh, money, and Kim takes full advantage of her scene.

(Just wondering: Has Gurney given Scott the name Walker Williams because "Walker" is the designation accorded men who escort wealthy ladies when the husbands aren't available? There is definitely the implication that Scott could turn into one of those odd characters.)

It may be that many ticket buyers will be as wowed by this addition to Gurney's long play list as Cornelia is wowed by Scott. Others are very likely to leave their seats thinking a baffled, "Huh?"