Romero’s Wooden Nickel @ KDT’s New Works Festival

Kitchen Dog Theater kicks off its 13th annual New Works Festival, with a world premiere main stage production of Elaine Romero’s Ponzi, a National New Play Network Commission work that won an Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award. Presented as a reading in KDT’s 2010 New Works Festival, the play also received readings at Chicago’s Goodman and Florida Studio Theatre. With this much scrutiny by writer and actor folks in the know, the play should be primed for powerhouse performance. Instead, it’s a tepid bore of a wannabe drama.

Max Hartman, Christina Vela

Lights first come up on a huge tarot card of The Empress projected upstage as a multimedia backdrop. Referencing a mention of tarot near the play’s end, director Christopher Carlos uses projections of tarot cards as evocative motif to segue between scenes throughout the production, ending with a full tarot hand. Investing is a high stakes form of gambling; tying it to the chance or fate-designated draw of a deck of cards revealing “truths” about future events provides strong metaphorical visual. If only the play, itself, carried forth the potent imagery evoked.

Why did Elaine Romero write Ponzi? What are we supposed to take away from the play, except for a shrugging indifference to the plight of stung, foolish, greedy, rich people who shoulda known bettah? Was she hoping to “cash in” on the media frenzy created by Bernie Madoff after his widespread Ponzi scheme went bust? If so, she needed to cook up something more than a superficial treatment, build real drama into some aspect of what goes down. Nobody commits suicide, goes on a hunger strike, breaks down in heart-wrenching sobs while groveling in abject confessional self-recrimination, or castigates the soulless perpetrator with a masterfully constructed, venomous tongue-lashing or plunges a Kobe steak knife deep into his heart. Tsk, tsk.

Three characters seen and one unseen catalytic character sleepwalk along at a decorous, sedate pace. The male character Bryce (Max Hartman) lives with acquisitive gold-digger Allison (Diane Casey-Box) yet ingratiates himself with a lonely, eccentric wealthy heiress (Christina Vela), screwing both literally and financially, while in cahoots with offstage Ponzi prince Jack. There is no sexual chemistry between Bryce and either woman, no indication in his demeanor or dialogue of his nefarious machinations.

Diane Casey-Box, Max Hartman, Christina Vela behind

It’s not that Hartman can’t play that sort of two-timing cad, juggling everyone against the odds. I’d PAY to see him do that, relish his explosive, smirky, glinty-eyed portrayal. His role simply doesn’t give him enough to play with.

Neither woman inspires empathy or trust as written, or interest. The heiress seems a cautious stereotype. Wow, what a chance to go for a real vampire witch masquerading as Mother Teresa. But, no. She records video messages for her dead father (wouldn’t that be fun with shades of Dick Nixon thrown in?) and pets her cat. Everything on one tentative level.  At the play’s end, after she he finds that Bryce and Jack relieved her of $22 million in inheritance, she’s “now free to be me.” Really? A believable response to losing 22 Mil to a couple of slimy bastards? The gold-digger fawns so anxiously to get ‘insider’ status with wealth she looks ready to pee on herself. Casey-Box is a wonder at wrenching the least little bit of charismatic interest out of the most perfunctory of characters and does her darndest to do that here. Watching turtles fight over sunning spots on a White Rock Lake log offers better dramatic truth. Eventually, someone falls in the water with a splash. In Elaine Romero’s Ponzi, nobody even gets a toe wet. A decent cast, a strong director and a workable set design with compelling visuals can’t overcome this wooden nickel of a play. Don’t scam us, Elaine Romero.

Through June 25,2011 at Kitchen Dog Theater in the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC)

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A personal note: Not all Ponzi victims are filthy rich idiots. Many of them are elderly widows of some means, susceptible to the wheeler-dealers of Ponzi charm, who con their hard-earned retirements away, while promising slightly elevated returns, and leave them all but destitute. My mother, retired Dallas advertising executive and widow, was one such person. I returned to Dallas in 2005 in the hopes of trying to reclaim some portion of her life savings, my inheritance, from the Irving swindler, a fat “Christian” militant who stole it from her (and many like her in several states) and parked it in the Bank of Dubai, etc., never to be seen again. I’d love to see Christina Vela play me in MY version of Ponzi. It would involve gallons of stage blood and a fabulous impalement scene, very dramatic. I guarantee if I had that inheritance, I’d be doing a great deal more with it to benefit the regional arts community than floating on its fringes writing on-line stage reviews. Anybody up for a lynching?

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One thought on “Romero’s Wooden Nickel @ KDT’s New Works Festival

  1. Pingback: Thursday Morning Roundup | Art&Seek | Arts, Music, Culture for North Texas

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