Wendy Washingmachine Recycles Tom Stoppard

I know the plays of Tom Stoppard, and Wendy Wasserstein, if

I may say so, is no Tom Stoppard. The comparison wouldn’t normally spring to

mind-and it would be an unfair one-were it not for the fact that Ms.

Wasserstein’s Old Money , her new play

about old and new money at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, has

borrowed uncomfortably from Arcadia ,

Mr. Stoppard’s best play that was produced with such distinction at Lincoln

Center five years ago.

Perhaps Old Money

is meant as a kind of tribute. Perhaps no one thought we’d notice. But Ms.

Wasserstein’s bewilderingly lame social satire evokes the same time warps

between centuries that take place in a historic house as Mr. Stoppard’s famous

play does. To make matters worse, the director, Mark Brokaw, even has couples

from the different centuries dance as if in a dream-mirroring time past

mysteriously melting into time present, as Arcadia

did in its most affecting image.

It wouldn’t matter quite so much if Old Money crackled with the wit and intellectual rigor of the

Stoppard, or challenged us to give a thought or two to such vitally important

things as goings-on in gazebos, the romance of ideas, the symbolism of gardens

(classical symmetry to romantic disorder) or the mysteriously unfolding secrets

of an unknowable universe. But Ms. Wasserstein’s points about the vulgarities

of new money-let alone old-aren’t surprising. They’re unearned and shallow,

like the constant name-dropping throughout the piece-a secondhand substitute

for amusing conversation, or even a play.

“Fuck me. Or is this some beautiful house!” announces

zillionaire film producer Sid Nercessian (dressed in a T-shirt and jeans like

David Geffen) as he enters the Upper East Side mansion of Jeffrey Bernstein, a

zillionaire arbitrageur and dull arriviste

in a linen suit. Nercessian is a loud-mouthed vulgarian, naturally. We know

this because he says stuff like “Fuck minimal, give me trees” and “My favorite

fucking people in the world are artists.” But Ms. Wasserstein’s wince-making

stabs at Hollywood satire only remind us of better versions. E.g., “Honey, was

it Henry James who wrote that Scorsese movie with Winona?”

The action-and there is very little of it-revolves round a

big house party that Bernstein is throwing during August-a test of his power

and a bad running joke in the play. Who would be seen dead in New York in

August? Everyone, apparently. Our host is described by someone else in the play

as a “master at playing the world to his advantage.” He’s “brilliant, but a

social enigma.” He seemed a bit dim to me. But hence his glittering, enigmatic

party in August.

Don’t worry if you weren’t invited. “Everybody came,” as

Alice B. Toklas put it, “and no one made any difference.” Ms. Wasserstein drops

all the usual names like a tired mantra of tedium-Diane and Barry, Martha

Stewart, Jeffrey Katzenberg, “Bobby Rubin,” “Gwyneth,” the Trumps, Puff Daddy,

David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Charlie Rose, Henry Kissinger, etc., etc. There’s

a whiff of déjà vu about this “new”

Gilded Age elite, as if her barbarians at the gates are still stuck in the Saul

Steinberg era. Their baubles of wealth are more on the money-restored mansions,

Botox injections, museum board memberships, Gulf jets, party consultants,

surgery. But Ms. Wasserstein’s take on celebrity and society is scarcely fresh.

She laboriously explains the obvious. “You see, Mr.

Pfeiffer, in your day it was all about bloodlines,” expounds Flinty, a

wealth-obsessed social columnist. She’s the Boswell of the new aristocracy for

something called The New York Chronicle .

(The names are real, only the newspaper has been changed to protect the

playwright.) Mr. Pfeiffer is Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer III, a WASP of the old

school and a Louis Auchincloss character who lived in the Bernstein mansion as

a child. He needs flighty Flinty’s social lesson like a hole in the head. “Over

50 percent of the richest men in America were also in the Social Register,” she

drones on to him, lest we miss Ms. Wasserstein’s dated message. “But now

society has merged with celebrity. Cash frankly has superseded class. We live

in an asset-based meritocracy. There are 64 new millionaires a day in Silicon

Valley and no one cares where they came from….”

There’s news for you! We live in an age of celebrity! Then

again, these aren’t characters, but mouthpieces and labels. There’s also

Saulina-the Pure Artist as Troubled Outsider Displaced by a Society Run by

Vulgarians. Saulina’s a bohemian sculptress and the ex-sister-in-law of

Bernstein who’s given to maudlin pieties in the name of plucky backbone. “I

have very little wisdom, Caroline. But one thing I can promise you,” she tells

the suicidal teen daughter of the movie mogul. “If you and I try very hard,

then they don’t have to win. But if you give up, you’ll never know how strong

you can be.”

Saulina is actually the living, wilting contradiction of

inner strength, but let it pass. We are meant to feel for her because she feels

excluded by wealthy ignoramuses. Ms. Wasserstein’s sloppy sentiment would like

to have us believe anything. “It’s all right,” Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer III

consoles Saulina in an intimate moment. “Cry, Selina. Cry for me. Cry for your

sister Jessica. Cry for Ovid and Caroline. Just cry for all of us.”

Cut to the commercial. (One thinks.) Who else talks this

way? Our emotional involvement in this crass bunch is presumed, as

name-dropping is presumed to encourage easy laughs. Such names! Ovid-”Cry for

Ovid and Caroline,” as opposed to “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”-is one Ovid

Walpole Bernstein, the mini-adult, 17-year-old son of Jeffrey. Why is a nice

zillionaire like Jeffrey Bernstein naming his son Ovid Walpole? For comic

effect, we assume. For myself, silly names are plain silly. Does Wendy

Washingmachine want us to take her characters seriously or not? Either way,

she’s surely been wittier than this. “Do you know the gavotte?” Tobias Vivian

says to Saulina, asking her to dance in an elderly romantic interlude. “Sounds

like a French and Yiddish cake,” she replies.

Does it? I’m sorry to harp. But what’s French and Yiddish and cake-like about the gavotte? But the strain of being

Stoppardian is nowhere more creaky than in the confusing turn-of-the-century

scenes that are meant to parallel the coarse present. The movie mogul becomes a

bullying Gilded Age Carnegie, the arbitrageur a Jewish department store

entrepreneur, the sculptor the Edwardian eccentric and so on. Vulgar then,

vulgar now, is the unremarkable message. (Shallow then and now, too.)

Ms. Wasserstein’s re-creation of the past in Old Money is as sketchy as her present,

but messier. I found it difficult to figure out who was who, or why. An

entrance from the turn of the century is invariably accompanied by much

enforced gaiety and laughter, followed by a rousing chorus of “Ta Ra Ra Boom De

Ay.” The stilted, sub-Whartonesque dialogue is too close for comfort to a

version of Ragtime and, worse, Titanic . “Don’t you find the 20th

century thrilling, Mr. Strauss?” “You’re not worried about the collapse of the

Ottoman Empire, Miss Gallagher?” “Nothing will be the same! Not in painting,

not in marriage, not in war! This will be the century of American ingenuity!”

Truth be told, the Old

Money ensemble seems uncomfortable in the midst of all this self-conscious

tittle-tattle and dud time-bends. Only Mary Beth Hurt in the dual roles of

Saulina/Sally looks as if she might be having some fun. Thomas Lynch’s most

handsome mansion set appears grandly as the only authentic touch. The rest is

dispiriting, right down to Ms. Wasserstein’s leaden explanation of her own play

through the medical procedure known as “anastomose.” It’s the process,

apparently, of two arteries becoming one. If so, we’re entitled to ask, where’s

the blood?

It’s no crime to write a poor play, but Ms. Wasserstein has

written a careless, anemic one. Plays of ideas- An American Daughter and now Old

Money -aren’t her strength, and Mr. Stoppard, who on occasion can be

effervescently too clever by three-quarters, resides on a lofty perch of his

own.