Paper Money

American mores are played out in Marvin Gardens.

A Depression-era board game invented to provide financially strapped folks with the chance to embark on vicarious -- and harmless -- voyages through the choppy waters of high finance serves as the central metaphor in Nagle Jackson's A Hotel on Marvin Gardens. As a group of self-absorbed upwardly mobile types wheel and deal their way through a cutthroat round of Monopoly, the game's ability to turn the well-behaved into the fortune-crazed quickly rises to the surface. And a pre-war diversion intended to assuage a down-on-its-luck citizenry becomes symbolic of contemporary society's obsessions with designer wealth, soulless extravagance and individual omnipotence.

Patterned along the structural lines of Twenties- and Thirties-era drawing-room comedies such as Noel Coward's Hay Fever and inspired by social satires like Molière's The Misanthrope, Jackson's bubbly tale, which he also directs, is receiving its world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company. But while the play oozes with witty banter, saucy caviling and wry commentary, the production's appeal lies mostly in the actors' fine performances.

That's especially true of DCTC newcomer Nance Williamson's portrait of KC, a trendy New Yorker who owns a hip-but-flip magazine called ME. As she strides about her commodious island getaway perched atop one of Long Island Sound's aptly named Thimble Islands (an inviting upscale cabin setting by Michael Ganio), Williamson cuts a figure that's both commanding and sympathetic. Whether she's launching full force into KC's relentless criticism of others ("You've been speaking to people who, like yourself, have lost all distinction between language and meaning") or demonstrating her tendency to coerce affection rather than earn it, Williamson is charmingly convincing.

In fact, while KC demands -- and nearly gets -- unwavering loyalty from Henry (Sam Gregory), the editor she wants to fire, and constantly browbeats her publisher and lover, Bo (John Hutton), Williamson somehow manages to round off her more serrated edges and in the process make her abidingly attractive. Her delivery of KC's mantra, "All I want is to own everything and always be right," makes building an Empire of One sound like a worthy cause. She's also amiably curt during several catty exchanges with Erna (Annette Helde), a hopelessly overdone food critic. And although Williamson can wordlessly emanate contempt for the likes of Rose (Lauren Berst), a hapless schoolteacher who seeks shelter during a harsh maritime storm, her watery, empathetic gaze conveys genuine concern about the events that preceded Rose's flotsam-like arrival.

Helde's Erna is a model of grating effervescence and faux snobbishness as she flails about in a garish outfit that makes one wonder about her ability to assail restaurateurs under the cloak of anonymity. Fervent and rapturous when Erna is quoting Shakespeare or Keats, Helde is also humorously vacuous when she's trying to apprehend another's plain-spoken meaning ("You are a woman of dimensions," says Bo. "Really?" wonders Erna. "Which?"). Her execution of Erna's bizarre pre-game ritual earns more applause and laughter from the audience than any single line of dialogue. Although Rose's entrance near the end of the first act doesn't alter the scope of the drama in the significant way that, say, Hilda Wangel's does in Ibsen's The Master Builder, Berst renders her introductory monologue with an energizing edginess. Underpaid, underappreciated and, as KC conspicuously points out, woefully undereducated, the fifth-grade schoolteacher epitomizes the country's simplistic wants and inverted sense of values. "You talk about neat stuff and you play games, and the TV isn't even on. That's class," she says midway through Act Two. And despite the fact that the roles of Bo and Henry could use significant beefing up (Bo's sincere remark to KC, "I hope you get your power restored," seems right out of a vapid Nineties sitcom instead of a droll drawing-room comedy) Hutton and Gregory balance their episodes of self-deprecating humor with eye-twinkling warmth. As he's often done in the past, Hutton turns in an understated performance that lends authenticity and insight to the play's undercurrents without drawing undue attention to peripheral concerns.

All in all, Jackson's collection of bliss-jugglers are an engaging bunch with whom to spend a couple of hours. But for all of the characters' pointed remarks about income disparity, celebrity idol-worship and the egregious hypocrisy of religious figureheads, Jackson's dialogue is more innocuously pedestrian than brilliant. And the characters' endearing quirks and fleeting passions are commonplace and inconsequential rather than dangerously eccentric or hubristically comic -- shortcomings that, however harmless, reflect the shallowness of modern-day mores.

 
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