“Mutual Philanthropy” reveals predatory side of gentrification

LOS ANGELES – Dan Bonnell, the director of Mutual Philanthropy, makes the most of the little tableaux vivants that stud this one-act play at regular intervals. In the first one, we find Charles (James MacDonald) in his stylish bo-bo home (that’s “bourgeois bohemian”), getting ready for an intimate dinner party, and there’s a soft Latin soundtrack he responds to with a sexless little sway of the hips, as if he’s recalling a forgotten step from high school cotillion. This gesture turns out to be emblematic for the play – the rich white boy attempting to adopt the posture and movement of the Latino community in L.A.’s multi-ethnic Mount Washington area, where he and his wife Michelle (Brea Bee) have staked their claim.

They have invited a set of parents who send their kids to the same local school. Lee (Mark Carapezza) is a talented sculptor who hasn’t yet broken into the upscale art market, looks after the kids at home, and volunteers to run a creative arts program at the school. He is married to Esther (Xochitl Romero), a full-time chef’s assistant and the family’s chief breadwinner. They’ve left the kids with a babysitter for the evening.

Each couple looks forward to the dinner, because Charles has put out strong signals that he might like to add Lee’s sculpture “Reclining Man” to his growing collection. He likes to grab new artists on their way up and secure their admiration with an important purchase that he and Michelle can later parlay into artist donations to the annual auction benefiting the well-endowed private school on whose board he serves. Will Charles lay out a few thousand to acquire Lee’s work? It would help with the family finances and their mortgage.

As the drinking from the expensive booze caddy proceeds, and the conversational swordplay moves toward more direct forms of verbal and other enticements, it seems that Charles and Michelle have a somewhat grander agenda in mind. Even bigger than the historical preservation efforts they’re pursuing in the neighborhood – keeping what’s “authentic” while eliminating what might be “threatening.” Bigger, too, than building trendy new art galleries to make local artists into celebrities – and show Mount Washington as a hip zip code to invest in.

They propose to transform Esther and Lee’s lives in ways neither of them could ever have imagined with a signed contract of “mutual philanthropy”.

The play “is about what happens between ‘friends’ when wealth divides and its power proves seductive,” Rizzo says in an interview. “It’s about the difficulties of making a living and making art, and the frequent dichotomy between the two, especially when one is hoping to hold onto some vestige of ‘The American Dream’ – not a big, unrealistic dream, simply one of being able to provide for oneself and one’s family. It is a story about what people will do to further their needs and desires.”

At every turn, Charles and Michelle become more obnoxious – smug and self-congratulatory, patronizing, privileged and pretentious. Like their pet cat that’s forever killing birds just for sport, they hover predatorily with a never satisfied appetite over every potential opportunity for aggrandizement. A professional investment banker, Charles admits he’s already “fat” financially, but is built to want more, and declares there’s no such thing as mere “maintenance.” It’s “primal.” As a certain presidential candidate likes to say, “Everything is a deal.”

It’s hard to escape the politics of the moment surrounding this world premiere production. What would Bernie Sanders think about this play? “There’s certainly the element of income inequality and middle class struggle,” Rizzo says. “I think Bernie would find supporters in either couple, for very different reasons. I think he’s shrewd enough to know that there’s often a certain amount of theatricality in philanthropy and good intentions.”

“The kind of liberalism that I’m describing,” says Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal, in the September issue of The Progressive, “is in love with the idea of its own virtue…. It’s a commodity that can be exchanged. So the Clinton Foundation, as we’ve all been finding out, takes in these donations from really unsavory people and then funds some very good causes. It’s a kind of global virtue exchange, in which people’s sins are forgiven. It’s like in the Middle Ages, when you could buy forgiveness for your sins.”

Karen Rizzo has captured the sickness of this über-financialized moment in history with the Brechtian net of her sexually-infused dialogue. It’s amazing how much sociological as well as psychological intelligence she conveys in these short 75 minutes. The acting is perfection, the lighting effects (Chris Wojcieszyn) gorgeous, and there’s even a food fight with fennel!

Mutual Philanthropy runs at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, Atwater Village Theatre Complex, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles 90039. Showtimes are 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 pm and 7 pm on Sundays, with two added performances at 8 pm on Thursdays, Sept. 15 and 22, through September 25. For information and reservations contact (818) 839-1197 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2581024.

Photo: L-R, James MacDonald, Brea Bee, Xochitl Romero, and Mark Carapezza / Lew Abramson


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.