Not for Love or Money

Cyndi Lauper sang that “money changes everything,” but Susan Sobeloff’s debut play Merchants seems to indicate that Lauper may have been selling money short. Money doesn’t just change everything—it is everything. It’s the only thing worth talking about.

Maura Halloran and Ariane Owens in Merchants. Photo by Cody Rishell.

The title Merchants sounds as if it might be a play on The Merchant of Venice, and in her program note for No Nude Men Productions’ premiere of her play Sobeloff says that she was inspired to write it after seeing Shakespeare’s play. But aside from the theme of money and the family in Merchants being incidentally Jewish, there’s really no connection in story or subject matter.

Mind you, this particular family has good reasons to fixate on money, because times are tough, and seem all the tougher for them because you get the impression that they’ve never had to worry about money before. One sister, Mercedes, is a performance artist and kind of a flake, who’s always borrowing money from her family and not paying it back. Her sister Lilah frets about losing her job, sure that he boss hates her, and that’s even before she finds out she’s pregnant. Lilah’s husband Theo, a marketing guy, has lost his job, and somehow decides that marketing and merchandising Mercedes’s performance art is a viable new business plan. The sisters’ mother, Ronnie, has been running the family business their father started, but it’s failing and she’s about ready to shut it down. We don’t know what kind of business it is, nor what Lilah does for a living, but the family business had been successful enough that both sisters considered it their backup plan.

The father has been dead for a long time, but the surviving family continues to be defined by him and what he would have thought of the way they live. The play opens on the anniversary of his death, when the family members individually light candles and talk to him about their lives as if he were still around.

When they’re not talking to dad, it’s a family of impressively lousy communicators. There are several scenes in which someone tells someone else about a major event in another family member’s life, only to be asked why that family member didn’t bother to tell her sister or daughter what was going on herself. People routinely don’t mention major life decisions to their loved ones for months.  In one particularly bizarre scene, Lilah and Theo come home from one of Mercedes’s performances and argue about the show for a while before Theo starts to complain about some degrading team-building exercise he had to do at work, only mentioning at the end of the story that he lost his job. That’s what you call burying the lead.

Dad is also the only one that they seem able to have a civilized conversation with. Everyone in the family is always putting each other down, right where it hurts—in the work ethic. Everyone seems to think everyone else is lazy or a quitter or insufficiently dedicated to keeping the family afloat, and that’s all they talk about. No sooner does Theo tell Lilah he’s lost his job than she starts stressing at him about his not having found a new a job that very same day.

Theo’s interest in Mercedes and her work is always a little creepy, from right in the beginning when he’s defending her to his wife to when he shows up at his sister-in-law’s apartment with an unsolicited and unwanted business plan that he wants to keep secret from his wife. Creepy, right?  But it appears that this really is just entrepreneurial zeal on his part. It’s just hard to trust it because what little we see of Mercedes’s show doesn’t make it seem like anything to build a business on, and because Theo never has a conversation with Lilah that’s not an argument.  It doesn’t help that, although Tony Cirimele’s Theo has a great go-get-em voice, he’s also a little smarmy and squirrelly about telling his wife what’s going on.

On the other hand, Ariane Owens makes his reticence understandable as Lilah, because she’s awfully abrasive, sullenly resenting her sister and constantly squabbling with her husband. Her concerns about how they’re going to raise a baby without a steady source of income are well taken, but would be much more so if she weren’t always so passive-aggressive about them. Trish Tillman has a charming weary mildness as the aphorism-spouting mom (a role played by Exit artistic director Christina Augello for one performance on St. Patrick’s Day), but she’s also all business, never visiting with her daughters so much as taking meetings with them.

Maura Halloran is probably the most sympathetic character as Mercedes, which is interesting because at first glance she seems to be the most self-absorbed. In her performance persona she’s flashy, dancerly and free-rangingly flirtatious. (Her character self-indentifies as a bunny, which becomes her logo.) On the one hand she’s sympathetic because more and more pressure is put on Mercedes as the play goes on, and you can feel the strain, but on a much more basic level, she’s the easiest to connect to because the only healthy, loving, living relationship we see is the one between her and her baby niece.

No Nude Men artistic director Stuart Bousel gives the play a well-paced, engaging staging at the Exit Stage Left, right across the hall from the Exit Theare main stage. In Joshua Saulpaw’s simple but intriguing set, the stage floor is painted a peach and cream checkerboard pattern with a Playboy-reminiscent bunny silhouette in one corner. Months of the year are written on the black walls, which is a confusing touch at first because the passage of time within the play is pretty nonspecific—we never know what time of year it is or exactly how many months have passed between scenes—but it turns out to be nothing so symbolic but a concrete device used very late in the play as a scheduling system for the characters’ home business.

It can be hard to connect to the play because the characters come off as petty jerks and the big business plan sounds like such a bafflingly bad idea that it’s hard to suspend disbelief about it. But it’s entertaining nonetheless, and there are a lot of great lines in Sobeloff’s script; in just one scene you get both “I don’t lie. I’m just past due on telling you.” and “You can hate me as long as you don’t hate me permanently.” It never quite becomes clear why this story is being told, and at the end there’s no sense that anyone’s any closer to figuring their lives out than at the beginning. But taken on its own merits the final scene is poignant and eloquent in expressing that sometimes the only thing you can do is let all that go and just move on.

Through March 24
Exit Stage Left
156 Eddy St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #28 of 2012, attended March 10.

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