‘Love and Money’ touches the nerve center of modern existence

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Gregory Rothman, Peter Moore and Darci Nalepa star in “Love and Money” at Steep Theatre Company.

To his credit, British playwright Dennis Kelly wrote “Love and Money” several years before the current economic meltdown seized hold of both the United States and Europe. True, his work – now in a fiercely acted Midwest premiere by Steep Theatre – could not be more topical. But it also is eternal.

Kelly’s play, tightly directed by Robin Witt, is comprised of a series of scenes that expose the troubled personal and business “transactions” among a variety of loosely interrelated people. And it questions the whole matter of human values as it captures the abiding tension between loving and caring for other people, and the feverish (often compensatory ) need to hunt, gather and amass power, social status, “things,” and the cold hard cash needed to acquire them.

Of course in one form or another this tension is at the core of modern existence. And it is what Kelly’s dark, angry, impassioned play – which makes a plea for a more compassionate way of life, and for an appreciation of the sheer miracle of our existence in the universe – is all about. Stylistically, imagine Samuel Beckett, that great existentialist, riffing in a realistic manner, letting words, far more than actions, make the case. (“Love and Money” could easily work as a radio play.)

It begins with a long monologue by David (Peter Moore, whose seductive, beautifully modulated voice speaks volumes), who engages in a back-and-forth texting correspondence with Sandrine, a woman he has just fallen for at a business meeting. Along the way he confesses that his previous wife committed suicide, though the full truth behind that suicide only later becomes apparent.

Then there is the scene with a dead woman’s parents (Jason Michael Lindner and Molly Reynolds), who are enraged at the ostentatious headstone erected by their daughter’s husband, which they see as outdoing their own expression of loss and love for her.

At one point, the financially strapped teacher, David, swallows his pride and approaches a former girlfriend, Val (an ideally bitchy Darci Nalepa), for a job. Now a successful businesswoman, Val sees to it that he eats a very large helping of crow.

In another fine scene, set in a scuzzy bar, a somewhat naive and economically thwarted young woman, Debbie (Nalepa again, but in a sensational about-face of looks and character), is tested and enticed into selling part of her soul (and perhaps her body) by a thuggish and clearly desperate man (a deft turn by Gregory Rothman).

Ultimately we get to see the many things that pushed David’s wife, Jess (Julia Siple) over the edge. Siple, who gives a remarkable, many-hued performance throughout, delivers the play’s long final monologue – in which quantum physics yields to some semblance of more old-fashioned faith – with consummate skill.

The time sequence in “Love and Money” can be a bit fuzzy. And at moments Kelly (best known these days for the hit London musical, “Matilda,” which he adapted from the children’s novel by Roald Dahl) seems to be just a bit too much in love with his own voice. But to his credit, he never fully negates the seductive power of a beautiful pair of shoes, even as he shakes your soul with his wake-up call. And his work is perfectly in synch with Steep’s red-hot attraction to the pitch-black hole in contemporary life.

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