A particularly favorite topic for turn-of-the-twentieth century playwrights like Shaw, Chekhov, and Ibsen, the nexus of money, power, and love is a familiar and well-worn tension of drama. Victoria Stewart’s new play, Rich Girl, now receiving its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, revisits the topic, examining what new perspective our contemporary social landscape might offer.
The answer seems to be not much, as the result here is quite the same as we’ve seen before. Without much in the way of newly enlightening social critique, however, George Street’s Rich Girl still offers the pleasures of some fine acting and a beautiful production. And of course a reminder about the dangerous intersection of money and love can never be entirely out of place.
The play focusses on the conflict between wealthy single-mother Eve (Dee Hoty) and her 26-year-old only daughter Claudine (Crystal Finn), unenthused by her mother’s money or lifestyle. Eve hosts a financial advice show on CNBC with the tagline “Women. Wealth. Worth.” where she encourages her audience to foster true love by signing a pre-nup so as to ensure “financial intimacy.” A former waitress who invested wisely, Eve may read people as astutely as she reads the stock market, but she struggles to put her skill for understanding others into effective practice. Eve is in the process of grooming Claudine to run the family’s charitable foundation, a job that consists primarily of denying grant applications while schmoozing at black-tie fundraisers. Claudine is awkward and introverted: she has dyed her hair pink in a streak of rebelliousness, but she lives entirely under the roof and auspices of her mother. Given a salary of $18,000 a year to live in Manhatten and the guarantee of an enormous trust once Eve dies, Claudine finds limited recourses for either independence or happiness.
One of Claudine’s first duties as foundation administrator is denying the application of Henry (Tony Roach), an old high school classmate of hers who now runs a downtown theater company in dire financial straits. The denial is cut-and-dry since his company does not fit the foundation’s mission, but their lunch meeting begets an unconventional romance between the dashing Henry and the self-consciously plain Claudine. A few months of dating and a hasty wedding proposal later, and Henry must face down Eve for the right to define the narrative of Claudine’s love life. Eve suspects Henry to be a gold-digger, while Claudine believes fully in their love. The mother-daughter conflict exposes raw emotions and harsh truths about both women and their relationship. Eve is as icy and defined by principled financial practicalities as Claudine is blindly romantic.
When the romantic comedy plot takes a dark turn, Claudine’s relationship with both of the major figures in her life pivots around the same trauma, and we watch as she struggles to define herself and her place in the world in the face of a barrage of assaults to her ideals of self and others.
Both of the leads do well here to underscore the tension driving Rich Girl. Hoty makes Eve a less-jaunty Andrew Undershaft in a pantsuit. The character is completely and utterly convinced that the accumulation of money is both the key to a fruitful life and the empirical scorecard of success. Aside from the occasional wily or sardonic comment, we rarely see Eve smile or show any sign that she is enjoying herself in any of her pursuits, but of course for Eve enjoyment is much beside the point, as long as her portfolio is on the rise. Claudine astutely characterizes her mother’s ethos as one of demanding that people have a moral imperative to make money, and holding those who do not commit themselves fully to such an imperative in contempt. Hoty defines Eve by this contempt: it is comprehensive for Henry, but it is disturbingly pervasive for her own daughter. It is clear that Eve would rather not hold her daughter in contempt, but it is equally apparent that the only cure would be for Claudine to commit to her mother’s ethos, not for Eve to loosen her moral imperative.
Crystal Finn’s Claudine is the show’s high point. Over the course of the play, she must take Claudine to several different psychological conditions, and each succeeds in being at once distinct and tenuous. Throughout the play’s first third, Finn gives Claudine that particular brand of awareness that allows her to know fully well that she is socially awkward, and to desire most of all to be left alone with her awkwardness. The budding of her romance with Henry might seem a bit out of place as a result, but it is a reminder of the romantic buried within the introvert.
As the people in Claudine’s life change around her, Finn adroitly negotiates Claudine’s performance of self. This is a character never entirely certain of how to embody an identity defined largely by the others in her life, so it is little surprise that she changes as much as she does, and Finn brings an admirable precision to Claudine at each moment along her tumultuous journey.
Rich Girl may offer little new insight to the familiar caution against allowing money and power to guide a life defined ultimately by interpersonal relationships, but the point is insightful and well-executed nonetheless.