“This is when rich people become really rich.” A player in the post-Lehman Brothers financial world, aggressive hedge-fund dealmaker Jack (Ben Lee) wants his former banker friend Edward (Tim Delap) back on side because the latter has joined the government body policing financial institutions. The seesaw-like fall and rise of these two is the subject of “You Can Still Make a Killing.” Topicality plus playwright Nicholas Pierpan’s ear for detail make his play urgent, but soap-like structure blunts the impact of what could be a more trenchant (im)morality tale.
In Matthew Dunster’s neat production, Jack and Edward’s opening cut-and-thrust dialogue perfectly embodies the spirit of the ever-more-desperate deals that dominate their lives. But almost immediately, Edward loses his job at Lehmans, and the play widens to examine the impact of the financial crisis — and its opportunities — on their lives.
Pierpan keeps up the caustic tone with less than sympathetic portraits of Edward’s shrill wife Fen (Kellie Bright) and wannabe art-loving Linda Tilly (nicely underplayed Marianne Oldham). Both high-spending women, they’re presented as far more interested in the financial rewards supplied by their husbands than in counting the personal costs of the struggle for survival in the financial meltdown. Yet as events progress, Pierpan attempts to evoke sympathy in the trajectories of all four main characters whose fortunes ricochet as their plots become increasingly intertwined.
After a frightening period of unemployment, Edward joins the Financial Regulations Authority in a last-ditch attempt at saving his lifestyle. This plot point is a neat way for Pierpan to articulate the corrupt morality of those institutions and individuals whom the organization seeks to indict. These, of course, turn out to include Jack. Cue moral dilemma.
The men’s relationship spans the play. Yet while the characters make ever more brutal choices, the drama between them diminishes because of the episodic nature of the plotting. Twenty-six scenes ranging from job interviews, scenes of frustration in Starbucks, one-upmanship at home and at work, dodgy deals and even a scene in prison create a broad canvas, but the focus is too wide with detail too evenly presented. Potentially dramatic and distressing consequences of actions are played out, but because everything hinges on the next plot twist, there’s a lack of resonance exacerbated by Dunster’s unvarying pace.
In a world whose protagonists are constantly recalibrating their exposure to risk, it’s entirely appropriate that Alison McDowall’s sleek, minimal design exposes the actors, seen in stark relief on the shiny black floor of a corridor-like stage. And, despite some functional writing, Dunster’s actors are convincing, especially a savage but smiling Elexi Walker as a frighteningly assured high-flier and Robert Gwilym as a power-broking manager turned on by high risk.
Together with Pierpan’s precision, the production feels notably authentic. But the ultimate conclusion of the soullessness of this world feels too predictable in a play that has been allowed to ramble. A stronger dramaturgical hand could have forced Pierpan to make tougher choices about his material and sharpened the play.