Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing was, according to Oscar Wilde, the definition of cynicism. It’s also a major affliction for the debt-driven characters in Dennis Kelly’s smart new play, “Love and Money.” In this live-now, pay-later world, materialism is the author’s material. But instead of a didactic lesson on the perils of debt, Kelly keeps his theme in his sights by constantly shifting perspective to shed compassionate light on six characters in search of an answer to individual debt crisis.
As the play opens, David (quietly desperate in John Kirk’s perf) is conducting an email romance with a woman he met at a business conference. As trust develops over their cyberspace connection, the unseen woman draws out David’s story: In over her head with £70,000 worth of debt, his wife, Jess (Kellie Bright), committed suicide.
It gradually becomes clear that, instead of attempting to save her, he advanced her death because that represented freedom from the debt threatening to engulf them.
As in Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” (albeit without song), the scenario, once set up, steadily reverses over the course of the evening. Thus, by the poignant end, aud’s knowledge of the outcome is contrasted with Jess’ earlier, hopeful self, dreaming of a life like that promised by TV.
The play, however, is much more than a single arc of reverse chronology. Kelly juggles characters back and forth over time to create startling juxtapositions. The play is more a contrasting set of snapshots on the debt question than a traditional narrative.
Characters and situations are shorn of preamble. Kelly instead goes for the immediacy of depicting clash moments where personal, often sexual, desire and the desire to earn and own turn combustible.
In a scene of delectably high embarrassment, David, an ex-teacher, has a demeaning job interview with a patronizingly malevolent ex-girlfriend (marvelously sleek and preening Claudie Blakley), who ruthlessly manipulates his need for a well-paid job. With fake guilelessness and a vindictive gleam in her eye, she abruptly suggests he could always take up prostitution in order to get cash fast.
In a later scene, the versatile Blakley plays a sad, naive woman who meets a much older, viciously self-loathing man (Paul Moriarty) who claims to want to look after her while actually trading with her for sexual favors.
In this kaleidoscopic evening, Moriarty also plays Jess’ father. Together with his sour, mean-spirited wife (Joanna Bacon), he becomes so enraged by the expensively ostentatious temple erected on the burial plot adjacent to that of their daughter — “What does that say about us?” they demand — that he tells of smashing it up in the dead of night.
There’s something almost forensic in Kelly’s approach that’s perfectly echoed in Matthew Dunster’s expert production. Its fluidity is accented by Anna Fleischle’s chilly, architectural set, which consists of two white and steel walls full of hidden hatches that flip open to provide everything from concealed cupboards to a hospital bed and even a fish tank.
Kelly’s constant refracting of the increasingly dominant trauma of debt does gradually lose some impact. However, that’s counterbalanced by his feel for vivid characterization.
Aided by Dunster’s sharp direction, the play yields performances of unsentimental clarity, evincing sympathy in the most unlikely of circumstances. David’s fury at his wife’s collapse back into shopping addiction is simultaneously cruel and wholly understandable.
If the play doesn’t ultimately cut it as tragedy, there’s more than enough depth on display to mark Kelly as a writer with serious potential. He’s dramatically intriguing because, to his credit, he’s as interested in the ways of saying something as he is in what’s being said.