nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 13, 2012
In Righteous Money, actor-playwright Michael Yates Crowley imagines what might happen if a TV money evangelist got stricken by a severe case of conscience. To add drama and immediacy, Crowley has his character crack on the air, during his live TV show on CNBC. The result is edifying—brilliantly acted and certainly providing a bit of food for thought about what has happened to the American Dream in recent times.
Crowley plays CJ, a former hedge fund manager who has his own financial advice show, called "Righteous Money." CJ also has money—LOTS of money—so much money that he tells us to imagine all the money we've ever made in our lives and all the money we will ever make before we die, and then he says that that lifetime accumulation of wealth is what he earns in a day. He's not bragging, he's just telling the truth. His money is his obsession, and has brought him not just power but "dominion" over all he surveys.
CJ hadn't counted on suddenly discovering love; but that's apparently what's occurred, and that's what makes this episode of "Righteous Money" different from all the others. When we meet him at the top of the show, he's the slithery snake oil salesman we expect to find at the helm of a program like this, flogging his newest book and simultaneously flattering and scolding his willing audience while waiting for the arrival of his guest, "woman financial expert" Suze Orman. But the facade starts to break open and CJ has what amounts to a nervous breakdown on the air. Nathan, the assistant he had sex with last night, has gotten under CJ's skin, and on some level the guru has started to question his own values and motives. Are there people in the world—nameless, homeless, hungry ones—that should matter to this mega-rich man? For the first time, the answer seems to be...maybe.
Crowley's writing makes CJ very specific and at the same time very broad, so that he's at once a stand-in for an archetypal "1-percent" mindset and also a man in the throes of a deep and personal crisis of faith and confidence. Crowley acts the role beautifully, especially in the moments when the crackup begins, shaking CJ out of his complacent cocky default state. But there's a generality to CJ's actions and crimes that makes Righteous Money less on target, politically and economically, than I hoped it would be.
Michael Rau directs the play with admirable verisimilitude; the piece flies—and pierces—in the real-time space of an hour-long TV show. Elizabeth A. Coco's lighting is excellent, delineating mood-shifting moments with accuracy. Chas Carey films CJ live, with slightly-delayed feedback projected on a monitor on stage, a touch that's both realistic and deftly deconstructionist. There's both a man and a monster on view in "Righteous Money." Will one finally devour the other?