Money makes the world go around in timely and engaging economics lesson of ‘Labyrinth’

Under Spenser Davis’ dynamic and fluid direction, and with a highly capable cast fully committed to the play’s energetic theatricality, both the work’s strengths — and its flaws — shine through.

SHARE Money makes the world go around in timely and engaging economics lesson of ‘Labyrinth’
William Anthony Sebastian Rose II and Darren Jones in Broken Nose Theatre’s U.S. premiere of “Labyrinth.”

William Anthony Sebastian Rose II (left) and Darren Jones in a scene from Broken Nose Theatre’s U.S. premiere of “Labyrinth.”

Austin D. Oie

When non-Americans talk about history, explains one character in the play “Labyrinth,” they speak with reverence for the past.But when Americans do, “We’re saying something’s over…. Done with.”

“That’s history.”

The power of American forgetting hangs over “Labyrinth,” in fact drives its forceful impact.It’s about a young banker who finds himself issuing questionable loans unlikely ever to be paid off, part of a giant credit bubble that inevitably leads to a government bailout where everyday people suffer but the banks get paid.

Sound familiar?

I’m sure it does.But “Labyrinth” starts in 1978 and ends in 1982, and it isn’t about U.S. housing but about the Latin American debt crisis.You can almost think of it as a combination of the economic lesson of “The Big Short” with the era of “American Hustle.”

‘Labyrinth’

Untitled

When: Through Feb, 29

Where: Broken Nose Theatre at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Tickets: Pay-what-you-can

Info: brokennosetheatre.com

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes

First produced in 2016, “Labyrinth” comes from British playwright Beth Steel, and Broken Nose Theatre provides this smart semi-comedy with a tragic sensibility in its U.S. premiere.Under Spenser Davis’ dynamic and fluid direction, and with a highly capable cast (many of them Broken Nose ensemble members) fully committed to the play’s energetic theatricality, both the work’s strengths — and its flaws — shine through.

Its strengths are significant.Steel manages to make the financial shell game involved with big-time government lending remarkably clear.Told through the perspective of a young, ambitious banker somewhat generically named John Anderson (William Anthony Sebastian Rose II), “Labyrinth” details just how a credit analyst can provide a more “optimistic” view of a questionable deal.

Assigned to work with fast-rising, jet-setting loan officer Charlie ( a persuasively persuasive David Weiss), John quickly finds himself confronted with the logical illogic of Wall Street-style lending.So what that the government of Argentina (or Chile, or Mexico, all represented by actor Ambrose Cappuccio) is overpaying for the nuclear power plant they want to build?That’s about “connections.”So what that cost overruns are certain?That just means they’ll need to borrow more money.So what that the growth forecasts don’t suggest the government will be able to pay the loan back?Just listen to the economists at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who are encouraging this modernization.So what that the bank could be left with unpaid loans?First, the loan officers get promoted based on the loans they grant, not the ones they refuse, and second, who ever heard of a government not paying back its loans?

Rose, an engaging actor, makes John a highly relatable and even sympathetic figure.He doesn’t come from the same Ivy-League background as his co-workers but is filled with all-American grit and determination. Any doubts he possesses are no match for the whirlwind of sudden success.And Davis’ production does a pretty great job, with just a few pieces of rolling furniture and a couple of light fixtures in an in-the-round setting, of depicting the frenetic intensity of the Wall Street world, as well as the era’s casual cocaine use and even more casual misogyny.

But Steel, who throws in some terrific little details that fly by (I certainly caught the reference to the historic Dutch tulip mania), layers in one too many style demands.In addition to the big story, she also wants to tell a more human, psychological one about conscience, and specifically John’s conscience.Even if America as a whole easily forgets his past, John is haunted by his family’s history, particularly by his father Frank (a charismatic Darren Jones), who committed fraud and went to jail.To tell this part, Steel resorts to some expressionistic flairs that externalize some of John’s internal battles.

But the production is already so stylized to begin with that the story of conscience never separates itself out effectively.And Steel seems to want it both ways: for John to be a representative figure — an Everyman — and also to make us invest in his deeper individual psyche.

Ultimately, John’s more personal narrative is simply subsumed within the larger social tale, which is imbued with a general tone of righteous indignation.That keeps “Labyrinth” from being emotionally moving, even when at the end it tries to be.

And although this is very much a period piece, I found that Rachel M. Sypniewski’s entertainingly era-authentic costume design — so many unbuttoned wide collars and roomy pants — provided yet another layer of style and became occasionally more distracting than involving.

That said, even if this show is aesthetically over-ambitious, overall “Labyrinth” tells an important — and largely forgotten — story that couldn’t be more relevant not just to our recent past but to an eventual future.After all, we seem to be forgetting the last crisis very quickly, and our unchecked optimism never seems to find a reasoned balance.

“Confidence,” says the journalist Grace, “is often irrational.”

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.

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