Premise of 'Croesus' is too slight to carry a play

August 19, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

In William Biddle's "Rich as Croesus" -- at the Spotlighters as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival -- we see King Croesus praying to the Almighty Dollar. Literally. The good king is on his knees in front of an altar topped by a gold dollar sign.

This seems like a clever idea, but it's not much more than that -- an amusing notion for a sketch perhaps, or maybe a one-act play, but hardly a full evening of theater.

The play's thin premise concerns a stockbroker named Edward who suffers a nervous breakdown after losing a fortune; now he's under the delusion that he's King Croesus, the richest man PTC on Earth.

In an apparent attempt to fill out the evening, the playwright tosses in a few slams at psychiatry and religion as well as a rather muddled subplot about Edward's best friend, who is impotent, although his wife claims to be pregnant.

The muddling is exacerbated by the tone of the production, which, as directed by Terri Ciofalo, remains bright and cheerful throughout, even though the ultimate message appears to be a dark, satirical comment that money truly is the answer to all ills.

(Granted, at the 11th hour the playwright throws in a statement about the value of friendship. But this comes from left field since almost everything that precedes it suggests Edward's friends have been motivated by money, not friendship.)

It's conceivable that the play's themes, plot and especially characterizations would make more sense if the audience had a chance to see what Edward was like before he went off the deep end. A stab at this is made in the brief, wordless opening scene in which Mark Squire, who plays Edward, gleefully exchanges his raincoat and hat for Croesus' crown and regal garb. But this is hardly enough.

The audience needs some foundation on which to determine whether Edward has truly gone crazy, is feigning craziness or, as his best friend claims, has always been crazy. When we first see Edward's friends and family dressed as members of Croesus' royal court, we might assume this is how Edward sees them -- a concept that would give the play the intriguingly skewed point of view of a madman.

Instead, we learn that the other characters are dressed this way to humor Edward, and the play's point of view is, at best, too broad and, at worst, extremely scattered.

Nor do the performances offer much help. Squire's Edward conveys the most energy when he's acting like a little boy, but in the end we're supposed to believe he's a shrewd financial

analyst. Then there's Edward's wife, whom we're told is devoted to him, though Rebecca Jessop portrays her as a back-talking shrew. Only Trevor Michael, as Edward's friend, registers any degree of sincerity -- no small achievement since Edward treats him like a laughingstock throughout most of the play.

"Rich as Croesus" might have had possibilities as a kind of fractured fairy tale -- a cockeyed, cartoon view of our dollar-centric society. That may even have been the playwright's intent. But the script sends out so many conflicting signals that this "Croesus" turns out to be lacking in riches.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Rich as Croesus"

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; through Aug. 28

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

Tickets: $8 and $9

Call: (410) 752-1225

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