nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 1, 2010
Microcrisis, Michael Lew's new play for Ma-Yi Theater Company, contains all of the ingredients that made our current Recession possible, but with at least twice as many laughs.
Satire, after all, is as good a way as any to try to comprehend how we got to where we are today, on the calamitous downside of a burst bubble that everyone seemed to believe would just keep getting bigger and bigger even though nothing real was sustaining it. Lew exposes the hypocrisy and greed and duplicity and sheer stupidity behind all of this, with intelligence, humanity, and enormous humor in this very funny, very apt comedy. Thank goodness it's hilarious—because otherwise we'd have to weep profusely at the truths it uncovers.
Our story begins in Ghana, where Acquah, a highly personable and enterprising young entrepreneur, is trying to grow his small business. He rents mobile phone time to his neighbors in the city of Kumasi, but only one of his two mobile phones (the Nokia) is working right now (the other one, a Kyocera, is broken). So Acquah is going to visit Citizen Lend, an American nonprofit with an office right here is Kumasi, where he will apply for a microloan. As you may know, microloans are the brainchild of Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunus; the idea is to provide small sums to poor individuals in developing nations that will enable them to start up their own businesses, which, theoretically, will lead them out of poverty. Exactly what Acquah is hoping to do.
At Citizen Lend he is assisted by Lydia, a 19-year-old Bennington College student interning at this charitable organization for the summer. Little does he know that, just moments after he leaves with his money, Lydia will meet Bennett, a banker on a mission. What mission?—to make himself as rich and powerful as possible, as quickly as possible. Bennett, who makes Gordon Gekko look like Mother Teresa, isn't planning to be another victim of the post-bailout, possibly-re-regulated American financial landscape. So he hatches a scheme to finance the microloans being made by Citizen Lend with contributions from a passel of rich (and, eventually, not so rich) people whom he ropes in via another heretofore independent operation, an outfit called Ivy Microloan that is run by a geeky college guy (think Mark Zuckerberg) named Randy Pfeffinger. Then he will bundle the loans and sell shares in the leveraged fund they turn into.
It is a genius scheme (and only slightly more far-fetched than some that actually did get implemented in this past wild and woolly decade) and soon everybody wants in. Bennett enlists his former boss, who is now the head of the New York City branch of the Federal Reserve, to help ensure that the operation at least has the appearance of being legal, and he cows a Moody analyst into giving his offering a AAA rating. He makes Lydia president of Citizen Lend and takes her to Monte Carlo for some serious gambling. He brings Randy along for the ride as well, to the tune of $21 million in stock options.
Will Bennett's business be able to indefinitely generate profit even though it is ultimately being funded by the poorest people in the world? Will Bennett care if the business goes belly-up, as long as he makes a bundle? You guess.
Lew sketches this story of rampant rapaciousness and avarice broadly, deftly, and at warp speed. Brilliantly directed by Ma-Yi's artistic director Ralph Pena, Microcrisis flashes by even faster than the dotcom boom did, but because Lew doesn't lose sight of the actual people in the midst of his story—bystanders like Acquah, who is hustled into taking out a second loan, or Mrs. Chavez, a schoolteacher who becomes one of Bennett's suckers—there's an immediacy and groundedness in this tale that's too often missing from news accounts of the real thing. Poor people actually do suffer when they're exploited by richer people; Americans used to seem to get that, but lately, I'm not so sure. Which is why Microcrisis really should be mandatory viewing for every single person in America today. Especially the politicians.
Helping to make sure that Lew's powerful medicine goes down like so much sugar is a powerhouse cast that exemplifies indie theater at its best. The estimable and versatile William Jackson Harper is first among equals here, anchoring the piece as Acquah and delivering a hilarious and incisive performance as Frankfurt, Bennett's erstwhile boss. (Costume designer Theresa Squire and/or her assistants deserve major kudos for how they dress Harper when he's playing Frankfurt, especially his not-quite-perfectly-fitting hairpiece.) Alfredo Narciso makes the ultra-wound-up Bennett comprehensible to the audience, but never sympathetic; it's a terrific, uncompromising portrayal of a man driven not by evil but by ego to do terrible things. David Gelles and Lauren Hines are each delightful as Bennett's naive accomplices, Randy and Lydia. Rounding out the small but energetic ensemble are Socorro Santiago as Mrs. Chavez and others, and Jackie Chung as the Moody accountant and others. (Pena is to be applauded for casting his show in a way that reflects the world's diversity so generously.)
Clint Ramos's set, which consists of an array of minimalist pieces that slide on and off stage efficiently, evokes the play's many locations perfectly. Lighting by Japhy Weidman, choreography by Dax Valdes, and sound by Shane Rettig all enhance the piece nicely.
Michael Lew (who, I am proud to say, had his first publication in Plays and Playwrights 2006, an NYTE anthology) has nailed the American financial zeitgeist with Microcrisis. I hope this play runs way longer than the Recession.