Marco Millions (based on lies)
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 10, 2006
The key ideas of Waterwell's newest "drop," a vaudevillian adaptation of an old Eugene O'Neill play called Marco Millions (based on lies), are right there in the title: this is a play about money and deception, and how the two go hand-in-hand to keep powerful people on top and everybody else on the bottom. In places, this piece really jolts, as in one surprising monologue in which Marco Polo (the title character) introduces paper money to the Kublai Khan of China (exposing the roots of the capitalist system in illusions and lies); or when Marco journeys away from his native Italy for the first time with his uncle Maffeo, the adventurer/trader who "opened" China for the Venetian market, and learns from him in stark, politically incorrect terms about how untrustworthy and dunderheaded are the Arabs and Indians that they encounter. In a world where American politicians can boost their popularity ratings by talking about "Islamo-fascists," such supposedly less-enlightened talk can feel shockingly relevant.
There are also several entertaining interludes, most of them musical: the five-member band (composer Lauren Cregor plus Gunter Gruner, Jenny Hill, Adam Levine, and Joe Morse) really sizzle, and the cast, under the expert direction of Tom Ridgely and the snappy choreography of Lynn Peterson, can put over a song and dance with pizzazz.
But ultimately Marco Millions (based on lies), for all its resonance and entertainment value, is only as good as its source material, and in this case, the source material is a play that is not only unwieldy and unfocused but also deservedly obscure. O'Neill wrote Marco Millions in the '20s as a reaction to an economic boom that he, presciently, was a little disturbed by: critic George Jean Nathan said the play was "the sourest and most magnificent poke in the jaw that American business and the American businessman have ever got." But the script veers from adroit satire (the speech about money in this Waterwell version is pure O'Neill; so, surprisingly, is young Marco's lousy, precious-metal-obsessed romantic poetry: "You are lovely as gold in the sun / Your skin is like silver in the moon") to a melodramatic unrequited-love plot involving the slick Italian merchant and the Kublai Khan's beautiful and brainy daughter Kukachin. The final thirds of both O'Neill and Waterwell's plays get mired in the princess's unhappy story and never recover: the bite of the show's economic and political themes simply dissipates.
Waterwell faces another difficulty with this production, one that didn't plague them in their last, excellent effort Persians, in having to pin their trademark zany post-modern/pop culture aesthetic onto a work that people aren't really familiar with. With Persians, it was easy to detect where the classic tragedy ended and the contemporary commentary began; here, partly because O'Neill is unexpected hip but mostly because very few people (myself included) have actually read or seen a production of Marco Millions, it's hard to know where Waterwell is merely appropriating and where Waterwell is augmenting, enlarging, or illuminating.
Nevertheless, the show is a sparkling showcase of this inordinately talented young ensemble: Arian Moayed, as Marco, again proves that he's an inspired comedian and tragedian with matinee idol looks; Hanna Cheek, who plays Kokachin and others, sings and clowns enthusiastically; Rodney Gardiner demonstrates his remarkable versatility as actor and song-and-dance man in the roles of Kublai Khan and others; and Tom Ridgely, in addition to helming the show, displays admirable comic and hoofing talents as Maffeo Polo. Kevin Townley, new to the group, feels like less of a team player than the others, which is possibly unavoidable when a performer jumps into a collaboration as seamless and well-established (four years running, now) as this one. Spare but appropriate design elements by Stacey Boggs (lighting), Elizabeth Payne (costumes), Dave Lombard (sets), and Jessica Paz (sound) are all noteworthy.
Marco Millions (based on lies) doesn't teach us anything startling about how the world works, but it does remind us that much of what's true (and upsetting) about life in 2006 was also true in 1926, and in 1296, for that matter. Waterwell's members continue to grow as artists as they put this unusual if only fitfully successful piece before us; their work always bears watching.