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The Panic of '29

Theatre Review by Sam L. Leiter - July 31, 2022

Jaela Cheeks-Lomax, Joyelle Nicole Johnson, Julia Knitel,
Olivia Puckett, and Rachel B. Joyce

Photo by Carol Rosegg
An atomic bomb goes off late in Graham Techler's The Panic of '29, now playing at 59E59 Theaters, but by then this bomb of a play with songs has already done its damage. Set at the time of the 1929 Wall Street crash and its aftermath, it's a bizarre farcical satire without a shred of wit, an ounce of creative inspiration, or a single hummable tune. An inedible goulash of poor writing and production, it also runs well beyond the two hours and 10 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission) mentioned on its program sheet, which only thickens the radioactive fallout.

Not that the laughing and clapping audience at the preview I saw seemed to care. Only a reality check at intermission with a couple of nearby critics assured me I hadn't fallen down an Upper East Side rabbit hole. Presented by Less Than Rent, one of 59E59's Co-Op Resident Companies, it employs a troupe of 10 actors, half of whom play a single role while their colleagues cover "many others." These are all such broadly mugging caricatures that, even were they acted by Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Jim Carrey, and Bill Hader, you'd still be wondering if maybe you should have stayed home and watched Netflix.

The homely set by Max Friedman (who also directed) includes two high platforms at either side. At first, the center is occupied by three obelisk-shaped prisms that can be moved into different configurations, but these eventually disappear. Much of the action takes place on the raised areas, requiring actors to clamber up and down steps. Given the platforms' height and their cramped, movement-restricting space, the actors using them should ask for hazard pay.

Jamie Roderick's dull lighting does little to improve the visuals, and Corina Chase's period costumes can't hide their low-budget limitations (dressing 1930s New York City police in costumes reminiscent of SS troopers is only one example).

Mr. Techler's choppy, often baffling plot, so ridiculously convoluted I can only hint at its inanities, begins on Wall Street in 1929, moves to a Hooverville called Shack Town in 1933, and ends at a Niagara Falls lodge in 1941. The character who gets it all rolling is Richard Whitney (Brian Morabito), Vice President of the New York Stock Exchange, who seeks to keep news of the imminent crash from spreading; although it's not noted in the program, he's based on a real person of the same name whose efforts to stop the crash earned him the title "The White Knight of Wall Street." Later, he went to prison for embezzlement. Here he's just a pompous fool.

Techler introduces Jazz Age speakeasy denizens, including a chanteuse named Lady Generosity (Julia Knitel), and her mollusk-loving boyfriend, Officer Kent (Will Turner), an Irish-accented cop. Apart from him, they all soon enough become Depression-era hobos, providing the background for the machine-gun murders of moronic, hobo-beating cops by someone called Tommy Gun Tommy (Rachel B. Joyce). Eventually, we end up in a snowbound Niagara Falls lodge run by Whitney's former secretary, Dot (Olivia Puckett); several others we've already met, including pulp fiction writer Jimmy (Will Roland), also gather there.

Joining them are a guitar-playing drifter named Floyd Yolk (Mr. Turner) and three bizarre French siblings, heirs to a fur-cap manufacturing fortune, who speak in ridiculously exaggerated French accents. The disgraced Whitney, on whom Dot wishes to take revenge, resurfaces as well, while, with war brewing, a German scientist conspires with a Hungarian princess (Ms. Joyce) and a general (RJ Vaillancourt) of indeterminate nationality to drop an atom bomb on Niagara Falls.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Whatever Mr. Techler is trying to say about the state of America is buried in awkward, unamusing dialogue, tissue-thin characters, tedious banality, shaggy-dog plotting, heavy-handed direction, and egregious overacting. It may be called The Panic of '29, but its result is the Great Depression.

The Panic of '29
Through August 20, 2022
Less Than Rent
59E59 Theaters, Theater B, 59 East 59th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: