The decibel level is certainly high, but for all the raging confrontations that make up John Patrick Shanley’s “Where’s My Money?” — the title itself is aptly aggressive — the play’s impact is not very forceful. A scrambled, semi-surrealist comedy about revenge, retribution and the emotional and physical scars of modern relationships, “Where’s My Money?” is strong on florid, anxiety-drenched dialogue and weak in such other pertinent departments as character definition and plot development.
In the opening scene, a mismatched pair of girlfriends exchange their latest news. Celeste, played with fragile charm by the unflatteringly attired Yetta Gottesman, reveals that she is working out her dissatisfaction with her deadbeat boyfriend by engaging in a literally bruising sexual liaison with a stranger.
Her imperious friend Natalie (Paula Pizzi) advises her to cut bait on both and get it together. But she isn’t exactly an esteem-booster. On the subject of the slightly handicapped Celeste’s stalled acting career: “How many parts are there for limping girls?” On Celeste’s dud b.f.: “Yes, he’s a loser, but what are you?”
But Natalie’s not as self-assured as she seems, and the scene concludes with her unnerved reaction to the arrival of a man — a ghost, we later learn — who delivers the curt query that gives the play its title. Scene two finds the haunted Natalie and her lawyer husband Henry (John Ortiz) at loggerheads over issues mundane (a joint checking account) and supernatural (the ghostly visit); seems Natalie borrowed the $2,700 she spent on her wedding gown from an ex who later died.
Henry storms out in a huff and heads to the office of his mentor Sidney (David Deblinger), a divorce lawyer with a flagrantly rancid view of modern marriage. Cuckolded in his prior marriage, Sidney, too, is haunted by the past. He appears to be taking out his anger at his first wife on his current one. Asked for his opinion of the current Mrs. Sidney, Henry says, “She’s lovely. She’s very nice.” “She’s a bag of shit and I have to hold my nose to fuck her,” comes the charming reply.
That’s a small but typical slice of Shanley’s scabrous writing here. The dialogue becomes increasingly shrill and overblown as the scenes grind on; eloquent though they may be, the characters are mostly just ill-defined bundles of rage and desperation with no humanizing warmth. Indeed, the play seems like a series of independently written tirades awkwardly strung together. (Sidney’s gift of a gun to Celeste — he’s the brutalizing stranger she’s been getting it on with — seems particularly contrived.)
Shanley’s gift for acid-laced one-liners and emotionally tumescent exchanges is certainly potent, and as acted with bug-eyed intensity by the cast (particularly the fantastically livid Deblinger), some of the scenes give off a kind of noxious heat. But a tempering directorial hand is needed. The playwright himself is at the helm, as he was for “Cellini” earlier in the season. Perhaps it’s time for a second opinion, particularly since the women’s roles are not ideally cast.
“Where’s My Money?” suggests some intriguing ideas about the dangerous way men and women work out humiliations and frustrations from the past on their current partners, and the unnecessary pain that ensues, but it is far too shrill and unfocused to leave us with any resonant emotional residue. A headache, yes.