Imagine walking into a luxury dream home with plush furniture, ancient vases, exotic artifacts, a brand new plasma HDTV and a kitchen with every gadget on the market. This scene is what an audience sees when walking into the theater to see Broke. Jack Magaw’s flawless scenic design immediately captures everyone’s attention. Now imagine all of it gone. That situation becomes all too real for the characters in Janece Shaffer’s play, which makes its world premiere on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage.
Returning home after being fired from her position as the Vice President of Communications for the fictional corporation MPI, Liz (Tess Malis Kincaid) tells her husband Jonathan (James M. Leaming) the news. After adjusting to the fact that she’s unemployed, both face a bigger blow when discovering that MPI has closed its doors due to accounting fraud, and all of their retirement savings (which were invested in MPI stock) are gone.
The MPI descent is reminiscent of the accounting scandals of WorldCom and Enron which left many executives and employees with no jobs or savings for retirement. By including this plot aspect, Shaffer not only cautions about job loss, but also subtlety comments on the importance of portfolio diversity.
While Liz climbs the corporate ladder, Jonathan continues to run a children’s shoe store his father owned. His meager earnings cannot support their lifestyle. With limited savings, the couple must figure out what do to keep afloat and, most importantly, ensure that they have the funds for their daughter Missie (Galen Crawley) to finish college. Jonathan insists to Liz that someone should be held responsible to fix the situation. Beginning to face the situation’s reality, Liz tells him, “No one is going to make this right. We have to make this right.”
Act One, while setting up the necessary back-story, feels much too long, especially when compared to the roller-coaster ride that Act Two brings. However, there are some particularly humorous scenes in Act One between Liz and Jonathan, including one in which they try to determine what expenses to cut. Joking about whether to get rid of her personal trainer or therapist, Liz quips, “Do you want me thin or sane?” But, suddenly, the scene turns haunting when Liz is presented with the choice of moving her mother to a less expensive care home, highlighting the difficult choices families must make in hard economic times.
Leaming and Kincaid are perfectly matched. Leaming provides a cool, carefree vibe to Jonathan’s relaxed nature that complement’s Liz’s high-strung, yet caring, personality. Both actors possess the couple-next-door persona, making it easier to identify with them. Kincaid is astonishing; her brave performance is breath-taking. Holding nothing back, her emotions are real and full of conviction.
An unexpected visit from Evalyn (Elisabeth Omilami), a person that Liz barely knows, causes Liz to become much more involved in Evalyn’s life than she wishes. Omilami delights in her role, and the delivery of her lines to Kincaid showcases her comedic talent. One scene, in particular, stands out. Evalyn declares when discussing her past relationships with Liz, “You want drama? We don’t have to turn on the TV.” Her tone and body language make the audience roar in laughter.
Shaffer brings forward a meaningful message with Evalyn’s character, but there are key issues with her storyline that just don’t add up. Engaging and believable in the moment, the storyline seems to be too far-reaching when later reflecting on the play. Additionally, the rich, original character development that we see with Liz and Jonathan isn’t quite matched with Evalyn. Fitting the cookie-cutter image of the sage, older person a little too well, she adds comic relief at the right moments, and then, predictably provides sound advice to the main character.
Overall, Broke is compelling to watch, playing like a horror story in many ways. There’s no monster or serial killer, but it presents something that many upper- and middle-class people are even more afraid of: losing their wealth and status in society. Even more frightening is facing that reality. When discussing the situation with Missie, Liz still can’t believe what is happening to her. She says, “This is what happens to other people, not me.” When describing the luxury of flying first class, she explains the desire to have those in coach pass by to see that she’s special. She confesses, “Money says I’m special,” echoing our society’s desire to not only keep up with the Joneses but also surpass them.
Maybe ten or twenty years down the road our country will be in a better economic state and this play will have a different meaning for viewers, but right now Broke is our society’s reality. Shaffer’s courageous attempt at capturing the financial and emotional realities of the current economic climate succeeds in providing an entertaining and alarming theatrical experience. Directed by Jason Loewith, Broke plays through October 23 on the Hertz Stage at the Alliance Theatre. For tickets and more information visit the Alliance Theatre’s website.
– A. Wesley