Theater review: Bill Leavengood's new work is right on the Money

A first-rate cast distinguishes a new play about sex, race and fundraising.

3.5 out of 5 stars
The Heather Theatre, 8313 W. Hillsborough Ave., Suite 250, Tampa, through Nov. 22, 8 p.m. 
Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. $25, $20 students/military.

There’s no room for error on the postage-stamp stage of The Heather Theatre, in the Town ’n’ Country area of Tampa. In a space this diminutive, and with the audience so close to the action, performers have to be on their very best behavior or suffer instant exposure to the incredulity of the spectators.

Happily, the five actors in Pinellas author Bill Leavengood’s Money Maker are more than up to the challenge, and one of them, Emilee Dupré, offers a performance so splendid it deserves a public far more expansive than the 50 or so persons that can fill The Heather’s seats. You may have some trouble finding this theater — it’s located in a small office complex behind some buildings on West Hillsborough Avenue — but the prospect of first-rate acting in a world premiere by a local playwright should be temptation enough. Money Maker is solid work and deserves your attention.

The story Leavengood tells is about Gaige (Dupré up through the 15th, after which time she’ll be replaced by Holly Swayne), who runs a nonprofit called Inner Arts, devoted to bringing art to underserved, poverty-stricken children. Gaige’s position calls for relentless fund-raising, and she’s in near constant contact with the head of her board Golden (Gianni Boromei) and its alcoholic attorney Troy (Ward Smith). Gaige, who’s white, is also in a long-term relationship with African-American Pruitt (Bjorn Joseph), a martial arts expert and veteran of the Gulf War who’s haunted by one of the figures he killed. She wants marriage and children, but he’s holding out for something different.

The equilibrium in which all these characters live is thrown off by two events. In the first, Golden offers to raise Gaige’s salary — if she’ll perform some rather shocking sex acts for him. In the second, she’s accosted by Devina, a young African-American woman who claims that she’s on the run from her abusive boyfriend. Being honorable, Gaige refuses to perform for Golden and offers to take Devina into her home for the time being.

But Golden, a billionaire, doesn’t give up on his thrill, and Devina, clever and duplicitous, has plans for Gaige that the latter can’t conceive. For the last two-thirds or so of the play, these problems, mixed with mind-boggling money matters, keep us wondering how Gaige will ever manage to come through. Ultimately, everything that she values, from her job to her lover to her home, is placed in question. And some of her challenges seem greater than her capacity to cope.

That we care is due to Leavengood’s talented writing and the cast’s crackerjack performances. To start with Dupré: this is a performance that can serve as a clinic in dramatic realism. Dupré’s Gaige doesn’t just speak her lines; she also shows an amazingly detailed range of emotion, often in counterpoint to her speech so that we have to scrutinize her constantly in order to know what she’s really thinking. Watch Dupré as she moves from enthusiasm to dismay to numb disbelief and then back to hope; watch her eyes tear up when she’s hurt, and then turn steely when she’s offended. This is the sort of acting that’s only possible when a performer gives herself completely to a role, leading us to believe in it as deeply as she does. I’m not surprised that her bio includes Broadway and Off-Broadway.

But she’s helped by a strong group that always gives her something to work with. As Troy, Ward Smith is profoundly disreputable, giving way every few moments to alcohol or some other craving, while Tamara Austin as Devina is a shockingly egotistical con artist, wearing her face as a mask that no one can finally penetrate. As Golden, Gianni Boromei is outrageously believable: this is a billionaire who’s tasted so many pleasures, only the perverse ones can still, perhaps, gratify him. Then there’s Bjorn Joseph’s Pruitt, a quiet-spoken killer who’s also a gifted visual artist. Pruitt is perhaps the only character not fully created by Leavengood’s writing; but Joseph gives him presence with a strong, confident performance.

Carrie Drazek’s precise directing is all the more impressive in the tiny Heather space, and Edwin Talfeski’s sets are tolerable enough, though rudimentary. The music box melody that opens and closes the play is designed by Leslie Maine.

Leavengood may not be telling us anything shocking with Money Maker, but he knows how to spin a yarn, and a large section of Act 2 is nothing short of gripping. Area theater-lovers can acquaint themselves both with this Pinellas playwright and with The Heather by coming out to see Money Maker. Consider it a vote for local arts; and a satisfying way to spend an evening. 

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