Monday, January 16, 2017

Big Stakes for Sandbox in "Big Money"

Could you game a system if it meant big money?

Photo by Matthew Glover.
If you're a person of a certain age (aka you were raised prior to the predominance of satellite or cable TV), at some point you had a gameshow day. You were 8, you had the chicken pox, and mom or dad took a much needed day to nap while you sat on the couch eating over-salted, canned Campbell's chicken noodle soup watching bad talk shows and even worse TV game shows*. Despite their utter mediocrity, however, there was something about the democratic idea that anyone with half a brain could earn some much needed money that was compelling, riveting in the right circumstances, and a welcome distraction from the real-time realities of managing money in America.

Big Money, the new production from Sandbox Theater (showing at Park Square), re-imagines the real-life story of Michael Larson, a Class A swindler who won $110,000 playing Press Your Luck in what was (at the time in 1984) the largest amount of money ever won on a game show. Big Money begins with the story behind the Press Your Luck win, showing Larson's obsession with non-working** and the effects it has on his family. Although the Press Your Luck win brings a much needed financial balm to the troubled family's woes, it's not enough to save it; between Michael's poor financial and filial management and the end of his wife's patience, Michael ends up on the run from the Feds, fatally ill and completely alone. It's a cautionary tale that quick money is never really "yours," family and relationships are far more important than cash, and the most important things in life can't be bought.
Photo by Matthew Glover.
The Sandbox Theatre cast approaches Big Money with wink and a smile, with each actor finding the humor in their parts. Peter Heeringa does a good job playing Michael Larson, finding the humanity even in Larson's most crazed moments. You can't help but kind of like the guy, and to empathize with his feelings; who among us would work every day if we didn't really need to? Michael isn't necessarily "right," but he really demonstrates the truth behind human nature and the fluidity of morality. Much of this is contrasted well by Sarah Parker as Michael's Wife Teresa. Parker has a stern demeanor that grounds her passionate feelings about Michael's lack of ambition and brings a level-headed opposition to his harebrained schemes.

The rest of the cast (Eric Weiman, Emma Larson, Cameron Mielicke and Cortez Owens) cycle through various supporting parts as bank tellers, audience members, fellow game show contestants and employees, network executives and family members. They each find ways to make the most of their time on stage and provide a lot of humor in between the seriousness of Michael's gaming obsessions.

The production design is relatively sparse, most notable for some floating, lighted panels at the back of the stage meant to mimic the Press Your Luck gameboard. They provide a jeweled contrast to the darkness of the theater, and are used with pointed lighting to illuminate various clues to Big Money's plotline. Piles of cash, simple costuming and basic tables and stools make up the rest of of the spare set, and it's all the show really needs; the focus here is on Michael and his scheming, and that's more than enough to keep you occupied.
Photo by Matthew Glover. 
Big Money is one of those stories that digs in after it's done. Much like other famous swindling stories (The Wolf of Wall Street, Catch Me If You Can, etc.), there is something delicious about Michael Larson's refusal to play by the rules. In the age of the 99% versus the 1%, Occupy Wall Street, Bank Bailouts and the financial disaster that is anything labeled Trump, why shouldn't an ordinary citizen be able to play the system? Is Michael Larson's refusal to "work" really that much worse than the runner of a Ponzi scheme or a derivatives-based stock sale? It's certain by the end of Big Money that Michael's life is in shambles, but it's easy to see why he did what he did. Big Money is an entertaining look at the ethics of gameshows and gambling with your life; it runs at Park Square Theater through January 28. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

*I know some of you have much love for the Pat Sajaks and Bob Barkers and Alex Trebeks of the world but sorry guys, bad TV is bad TV - even if you love it. Just embrace it.

**Which, ironically, was far more work than just working itself would have been.