Dinner, deaths, and fetishism of the dollar in new L.A. comedy

LOS ANGELES – High finance, family dysfunction, betrayal, death and Irish stew. What’s not to laugh about in Dinner at Home between Deaths now receiving its world premiere at the Odyssey Theatre?

Playwright Andrea Lepcio has the perfect background to write such a play. “I lived the Big Short,” she says – at Chase Manhattan Bank and at Salomon Brothers as a research analyst in the bond research department. “Bankers were realizing they could package and sell just about anything and their customers, hungry for yield, were buying. A couple of years later Salomon Brothers was charged with illegal government bond trading and was no more.”

Later Lepcio worked “for an independent economic consulting firm as a housing analyst. House prices were rising, the volume of subprime mortgages growing and the securitization market going global. We called the housing bubble in 2004. Spoke to client after client warning house prices were likely to fall, that subprime mortgages would be worthless, that households were likely to suffer. Most were making too much money in the booming market to listen, until it was too late. You likely saw the movie.”

Her play is loosely based on the Bernard Madoff scandal, the former stockbroker and investment adviser who thrived in the roaring George W. years until the bubble burst in 2008. Madoff has become the symbol of that era of reckless, frantic fraud in the fetishistic pursuit of super profits that also involved major investment banks – all made possible, let us not forget, by the Bill Clinton-era repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act which separated the activities of savings and investment banks.

As every American knows, it took massive federal bailouts at the end of Dubya’s term and at the beginning of President Obama’s to right the listing ship of capitalism and stanch even greater losses for duped homeowners. The crisis of our “too big to fail” system impacted the global economy massively. Madoff, personally responsible for his $64.8 billion share of the fraud, is presently sitting in jail.

In Dinner at Home the playwright has switched the strong ethnic identity of the lead character Sean Lynch (Todd Waring) from Jewish to Irish. In fact, the “dinner at home” is a fine Irish dish with homemade soda bread.

The characters are all likable enough, each with their own health problems that make them vulnerable to a more-sudden-than-expected demise at any time. The loyal wife Fiona (Diane Cary) has admirably got her housekeeper Esperanza permanent residency so she could bring her daughter to the States, and even speaks a communicable Spanish. Her sister Kat Cabot (Andrea Evans) is a touch daft but heads up a worthwhile children’s charity. She appears throughout the intermission-less 90-minute play in a designer party gown that she wore earlier that evening to her big charity function. The fourth character is Kat’s beautiful young adopted Chinese step-daughter Lily Cunningham-Goldberg (it’s complicated), whom Sean hires as an intern in his firm.

It’s Lily, just out of college with no particular career goals but who was once pretty good at math, who uncovers the great financier’s secret – that according to the applicable mathematical formulas, Sean could not possibly be making the profits he claims. He hasn’t invested anything for five years, but only gets money from new clients. In other words, a classic private Ponzi scheme – in Madoff’s case, the largest the world had ever known.

There was nothing real, just illusory options and derivatives. If he had used the original financial model that made him so rich in the first place he would have earned a solid 7 percent, but he promised, and his investors wanted 12 percent. Clients included individuals who trusted him implicitly with their fortunes, as well as numerous charities, foremost among them that of his own sister-in-law.

In a moment of clarity Sean admits, “I needed to stop. Then I needed to continue.” The demand for ever greater returns, not just from quarter to quarter, but from hour to hour, produced a self-perpetuating momentum he could not bring to a halt. “I will go to confession every day but I’ll never be clean again.” Without conscience, Sean Lynch, like Bernard Madoff, took whatever professional expertise and ethics he might have started out with, and flushed them down a royal, gold-plated toilet, leaving inestimable damage in his wake. This is the sociopathic nature of capitalism as we know it today: Financialization – which produces nothing but more money for the rich – has become America’s leading industry.

But how many more were never caught, never charged? In fact, now, post-bailout, the banksters are doing better than ever, their annual bonuses many times what most working people earn all year. None of them ever went to jail, even though, as candidate Bernie Sanders says, their basic business model is fraud. Likely we don’t even know the extent of it all: Who can fathom what crimes the recently released “Panama Papers” will reveal about the world’s rich and powerful? Those occupiers, who talked about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, they were onto something.

The playwright calls her work a “pitch black comedy,” in the mordant spirit of such great satirists as Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, Jessica Mitford and George Orwell. But it’s a family drama, too, and in an absurd, amoral way – the tears dried, faces powdered, the pent-up shame cathartically released – all ends well. The hijinks have spun their course, the family (what’s left of it) finally sit down to eat, and Fiona pronounces, “You made a beautiful stew.” Did he ever! Of course we can well imagine federal sheriffs ringing the doorbell any minute now.

The play is directed by Stuart Ross, who became famous as creator, writer and director of the well-known off-Broadway musical Forever Plaid, and is presented by Indie Chi Productions. The direction is crisp and fast-moving, with numerous scene changes and flashbacks. Discrete locations on the small stage, designed by Evan A. Bartoletti, include the dining room of the Lynches’ chic New York condo, the office, the lush bathroom and, so inventively, a sailboat on the open water. It takes all your wits to keep up with the pace, but well worth the investment.

Dinner is a thriller in the tradition of those great British comedy murder mysteries, mixed with a little American screwball and some hearty old Irish bar songs. It’s a hot property, and sure to pop up soon at regional theaters around the country. Watch for it.

Dinner at Home between Deaths plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, through May 8. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025. For reservations and information, call (323) 960-4429 or click here.

Photo: (L-R), Diane Cary, Andrea Evans and Todd Waring. Photo by Michael Lamont.





Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.