Some messes are more compelling than others.
Thematically, philosophically, and (in the end, yes, sadly) dramatically, The Panties, The Partner and The Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class is a trainwreck. I do not recommend that you go see it. Or tell your friends about it. Or even think about it again after you close this tab.
And yet… And yet there are moments, when, for example, a rising young Wall Street “master of the universe” is in his office, circa 1987 — with his father locked in the closet and his power-suited mistress, whom he just shot in the chest, (with the antique dueling pistol she gave him for his birthday: It’s the one Burr used to kill Hamilton) stowed away in his private bathroom — struggling through flop sweat to write out a statement of purpose that will save his career while, for no good reason at all, his boss’s over-educated 20something daughter looks on while doing bumps of coke, that the absurdity almost (so close) reaches bliss. The rich, blonde Harvard grad gazes at the framed painting on the floor, which the futures trader put there to cover a pool of blood. Is it a Monet? she asks. It’s a Monet, he tells her. It isn’t even Impressionism — he just needs to shut her up. There’s a pair of women’s panties on his desk, but absolutely no apple brandy in his bar. For this play, these are both major crises.
I’ve loved David Ives as a playwright since before I even entered high school, and there are brief, fleeting instances in Panties, Partner and Profit where his unmatched skill at building gorgeous filigree out of the English language shines through. Far too fleeting. I’ve relished the efforts of director Michael Kahn since before I moved to D.C., and he’s coached largely strong work out of his performers and crew here. But none of them can save it.
Adapted from a trio of early 20th century plays about the German middle class from Carl Sternheim, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s PPP, going on now until January 6, tells the story of the Mask family in three scenes, each set in a different American city (trending westward, naturally) with two gaps of 30-some-odd years between them. In 1950, in Boston, Joseph and Louise Mask are strivers trying to make ends meet. Their son, Christian, later makes his fortune and meets his wife in Manhattan just before the Black Monday crash. And, “tomorrow” in Malibu, Joseph and Louise’s super-rich adult grandchildren confront ecological collapse and possibly the apocalypse, too. Throughout it all, there’s news of a giant sea snake traversing the Pacific, a dark harbinger, we’re told.
Starting with the 16-fucking-word title, the lies pile up quickly; this play isn’t about the middle class, or really even the bourgeoisie in the classical sense of the word. Louise and Joseph are poor, working-class people, renting out rooms in their home and saving for the day they can afford a child. Flash-forward to the ’80s and Christian is cutting six-figure checks without even flinching, and his kids in 2018 measure their wealth in the trillions. We leap-frog right over the supposedly “heroic middle class.”
Far more problematic is the way PPP tries to both “tell the story of U.S. capitalism” and also end the world. The final scene, set in a cavernous California mansion, feels like a grim parody of The Skin of Our Teeth, with one American family standing in for all humanity as the thunder crashes, the lights dim, and all we have to cling to is each other and perhaps a plate of papaya.
But we shall strive on, they cheer! We shall go forth and survive! … k. After spending more than an hour assailing the way the top 1 percent goes about its business, the play still finds time here at the end to give an aggro punk-style female blogger a paean of a monologue on David Lean’s 1945 “cishet” film Brief Encounter. I forget if that speech was before or after the angel of death, in overalls, brings his “actual trumpet” over stage left; I was rubbing my forehead a lot by that point.
It might help if you believed a single moment, but the play never aims for realism. As satire, however, the message is muddled. As comedy … well, there are some good laughs, but not enough of them.
The most likable character on stage is often the one striving and clawing for financial success — a clever inside-out way into social-climbing psychology. Kevin Isola shines as Christian on Wall Street; Ives’s dialogue sounds like his native tongue, and it’s a treat to watch him scramble on his feet. Such a shame, then, that the other two-thirds of this triptych have him cornered in Jewish stereotypes, kvetching about draughts and “G-hyphen-D.” And Kimberly Gilbert is increasingly charismatic as the besieged tech heiress in part three, mostly because everyone else around her ranges from annoying to infuriating. Gilbert gives the über-entitled character a sandy voice and even-keeled delivery — you’ve never wanted a spoiled trillionaire to keep her money more. One wonders if a better sequence could be built around Christian and his daughter, with Julia Coffey’s bloodied, Vassar-accented mistress popping in now and then to throw some pepper in the pot.
It’s a mess. But, like the characters find out in the end, there’s usually something worth carrying out of the rubble.