“Everything is a deal,” says Charles, one of the four characters in “Mutual Philanthropy,” which is currently playing at NJ Rep in Long Branch. It’s a Trumpian thing to say, and “Mutual Philanthropy” is, in many ways, very fitting for life in the Time of Trump.
I’m not the first to say this, but money is the last taboo. People who will casually share every last detail of their sex lives, the medical procedures they’ve recently undergone and the state of their bowels wouldn’t dream of discussing how much money they have in the bank, how much debt they’re in, or the large inheritance they expect to receive.
One of the things I liked most about “Mutual Philanthropy” is the way money looms, as the elephant in the room, for so many of these characters’ interactions. With the gap in society between the haves and the have-nots growing so huge — and creating an underlying layer of tension that, in many cases, previously didn’t exist — “Mutual Philanthropy” seems very timely.
You see, Charles (played by James Macdonald), a successful investment banker, and his stay-at-home-mom wife Michelle (Laurel Casillo), are haves. And they have invited over, for dinner, a pair of have-nots: Lee (Joseph Carlson), a struggling artist, and his wife Esther (Vivia Font), an aspiring chef. All the scenes take place at Charles and Michelle’s expensive, tastefully decorated home in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The two couple’s children go to the same school, and Charles and Michelle admire Lee’s art. But the differences in their lifestyles are vast.
When Michelle casually mentions the expensive vacation she and Charles took, it doesn’t seem to occur to her that Lee and Esther couldn’t dream of such an indulgence. And when Esther offers “prosperity” as a toast, it’s extremely awkward. Charles and Michelle, after all, already have what she is wishing for.
Written by Karen Rizzo and directed by Evan Bergman, and making its East Coast premiere here, “Mutual Philanthropy” is in the explosive tradition of plays such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and, more recently, “God of Carnage” and “Disgraced”: A couple with problems of its own is thrown together with another couple and, with alcohol inevitably involved, all hell breaks loose.
What’s different, and intriguing, about “Mutual Philanthropy” (and this is also why the play’s title is so perfect) is the idea of transactions: Everyone is looking to get something from someone else. The rich feel entitled. The poor look to be saved. Deals are bluntly proposed or subtly suggested, then pondered and, sometimes, resented. (And no, it’s not just a matter of Charles and Michelle trying to add some art to their collection.). The tension never dissipates — not even in the final scene, which artfully leaves things unresolved.
“Mutual Philanthropy will be at NJ Rep in Long Branch through Nov. 19; visit njrep.org.