In a day when cameo appearances have become typical in New York theatrical ventures, the Waterwell troupe has scored a coup by arranging a drop-in by Pulitzer and Nobel winner Eugene O’Neill, who died in 1953. Watching Waterwell’s imaginative reimagining of the satire “Marco Millions” — here retitled “Marco Millions (based on lies)” — O’Neill muses, “You know, when I was writing ‘Marco Millions’ back in 1926, this is just the sort of thing I had in mind.”
Perhaps not exactly what O’Neill had in mind, but the original play — an attempt at political satire that was quickly relegated to theatrical oblivion — makes a pretty dry read. O’Neill, who by this point had already won his first two Pulitzers (for “Beyond the Horizon” and “Anna Christie”), seems to have been inspired by “Babbitt.”
Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel shook up the national persona, with its warts-and-all portrayal of a new brand of go-getting American businessman. O’Neill grafted these characteristics onto the 13th-century Venetian who had a long and profitable visit to the kingdom of Kublai Khan in Xanadu.
“There’s no money in politics,” this all-American Marco explains. “And no real power. The power comes from money.” O’Neill’s Marco, not the historical one, sets out to gather as many millions as he can. Using good old Yankee ingenuity, while remaining totally oblivious to the genuine wonders of Xanadu, he parlays a position as a low-level government inspector into a fortune.
Assigned to distribute imperial seals to silk manufacturers across the far-flung empire, Marco realizes that he might as well pocket ¥1,000 for each seal he issues. When assigned to the troubled province of Yan-gui, Marco outlaws chopsticks, at the same time establishing the Polo Flatware Co. This leads to a labor strike, with a disgruntled malcontent worker screeching, “I’m Korean! Fork you!” as she’s hauled off to extermination. “Fork you,” she protests.
O’Neill did not write about forks; in this scene, he had his Marco, played by Alfred Lunt, no less, rescind the luxury tax (since few people in the province could afford luxuries) and institute a necessity tax instead. The changed details, with foamy dollops of contemporary American humor, bring life to the dry-as-dust old pages. Similarly, O’Neill’s Yang-Chow province has been changed to Yan-gui, which has a more American ring. There is also a sequence (written by Waterwell) in which war is plotted against an unscrupulous enemy that is “harboring silkworms for purposes of aggression.” Thirteenth century, or 21st?
Established in 2002, Waterwell has built a growing following by combining comedy and music into dramatic-vaudevilles. (“Drops” is how they describe their offerings, of which “Marco Millions” is the ninth.) The cast of five forms a top-notch ensemble. Arian Moayed plays Marco with an open-faced, Candide-like innocence cloaking the dollar signs being tabulated within. Rodney Gardiner makes a stylish potentate as the great Khan; Hanna Cheek plays the Princess Kukachin, along with the other female characters, always with a store of humor; and Tom Ridgely, who skillfully directed the affair, essays Marco’s uncle Maffeo and others. Kevin Townley, who it seems could jump at a moment’s notice into a production of “Cabaret” and “Hedwig,” turns up in numerous guises including that of the knowing and very helpful narrator.
“Marco Millions” is laced with songs, highly effectively so. The music, played by a five-person band seated along a balcony at the rear of the stage, is by Lauren Cregor, who leads from the keyboard. These are not standard musical comedy songs as we know them, mind you; the highlight is an extended “Money Song,” with the lyric consisting of the word “money” repeated 236 times or so. This is wildly funny, abetted by the satiric choreography by Lynn Peterson. The set is simple — just black walls and a few props. That’s all Waterwell needs; watch them create a floating Venetian gondola out of four umbrellas and a bamboo pole. Lighting is starkly effective. The costumes are of the 20th-century clown variety, patterned perhaps on the sartorial splendor of Chico Marx.
O’Neill, in his cameo, offers “special thanks to Mr. Biff Liff for greenlighting the project. He’s the best agent a dead man ever had.” While this does not seem to be a direct quote from O’Neill’s writings, there’s a point to be taken. Keep your hands off reinterpretations of the great plays, yes. But maybe there’s something to be said for, and advantages to be gained from, allowing controlled experiments with the lesser writings of the greater playwrights.