It seems to be a growing trend among Cleveland Playhouse Productions to tell an insightful and often heart-wrenching narrative about some fundamental truth of human nature through comedy. In March, “Good People” managed to pull it off to rousing applause. Unfortunately, “Rich Girls” chokes on its own material. The first half of the play appears to be standard rom-com fare. Socially awkward rich girl Claudine falls for the poor but intriguing and stimulating Adonis named Henry. Self-made millionaire financial guru mother Eve does not approve. It’s actually pretty funny, although the humor seems to rely on semi-slapstick conventions such as the occasional pratfall or on Maggie, personal secretary and confidant to the mother and the daughter as well as the show’s main source of witty one-liners.
In the second half of the play, the show takes a definite shift in genre. It’s quite severe actually. I felt like I had come back from the intermission to a different play. Suddenly, conflicts between characters that seemed benign become malignant (as does a breast cancer scare). Eve admits that there is nothing about her daughter but her money that anyone could love, an assessment later proved by Henry. Like a rotten cherry on top, Maggie gets fired on Christmas. Now, after years of growing tired of the standard rom-com formula with its passé happy endings, I initially thought a departure would be refreshing. Indeed, the play reveals itself, in the second half, to be a sadistic satire that exposes the hollowness of idealistic love, free of practical considerations. Instead of bringing this point home at the end of its narrative, the play muddles its conclusion. I suspect that this was intentional i.e. the point of the play was to leave the ending open to interpretation. While that may have work in a play with deep, well-constructed characters, the stock rom-com cast of “Rich Girl” does not lend itself to such esoteric ruminations about human happiness.
All of the characters in this play, without exception, are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. They all have mono-directional aims that dictate the choices they make throughout the play. Eve has her eyes only on money and perpetuating her wealth through her daughter’s succession to the head of her non-profit organization. Claudine desperately seeks someone to love her. Henry wants to make art, and Maggie wants everyone to be happy. These desires dictate how the characters interact with each other. More often than not, this leads not to complex relationships between the characters but rather to a series of ultimatums that drive the plot toward its murky close. Only in Claudine do we actually see some internal conflict, but it does little to change the overall atmosphere. That being said, the actors do an excellent job of bringing these characters to some sort of half-life. Quite often actually, I forgot how one-dimensional these characters are and could enjoy the individual scenes between them. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make up for the writing.
The set design was also failed to support the teetering plot. Like “Good People,” “Rich Girl” employed a very naturalistic design. A better comparison might be last season’s “In the Next Room,” which also appeared on the Second Stage. However, unlike “Good People” or “In the Next Room,” in which the sets reinforced the themes presented in the respective plots, the set of “Rich Girl” does nothing for the story. Instead, it looks mostly like a set for a TV show, something that prompted a terrible thought to spawn in my head. I asked myself, why should I see this here on stage when it could just as easily be on TV? I should never find myself making a comparison between TV and theatre since the two mediums have different purposes. Rather, it demonstrates the flaw of the set design which focused too hard on being naturalistic and not enough on atmosphere or theme.
There is only one time where the set is used to explore a theme of the plot. It is when Eve addresses her audience on a CNBC program about money matters. The first instance of such a scene provided a nice introduction for her character and set the stage for the play. However, the repeated use of the device was bothersome. It seemed to be used to give the play a sense of pace and chart the changes in the characters’ situations as well as to make certain statements about the themes concerning financial security and relationship in the play.
Ultimately, the monologues were trite and vacillated between parodying actual financial gurus like Suze Orman and taking themselves too seriously. This could be said of the overall play itself and proves to be its quintessential flaw. It fails to take a standpoint either as a satire of the rich-poor rom-com genre or to simply indulge in the genre itself. And no, standing somewhere in the middle is not a viable standpoint either.