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Glenda Frank

"Marco Millions (based on lies)"

Adapted from the play by Eugene O'Neill
By Waterwell at the Lion at Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Aug. 4 – Aug. 26, 2006
For tickets call 212-279-4200, $35.

Reviewed by Glenda Frank

It's hard to associate the brilliant but dour Eugene O'Neill with the high jinks and soft-shoe routines in "Marco Millions (based on lies)," now at the Lion Theatre, but the clever, laugh-out-loud production by the new Waterwell theatre company is surprisingly true to the text of one of the playwright's rarely staged satires.

Marco (played by the appealing Arian Moayed) is lovable and brilliant but at heart a philistine. The play follows him from a passionate adolescence, as he swears fidelity to his lady love (Hanna Cheek) and writes his only sonnet (sung to a ukulele), through a highly creative young adulthood. He remains a money-hungry merchant despite the exotic world of 13th century China, the support of the powerful Kaan (Rodney Gardiner), and the affection of a high-born lady (the Chinese "answer to Clara Bow"). Through Marco and his uncle Maffeo Polo (played by Tom Ridgely, director/writer and Waterwell co-founder), O'Neill was mocking the post-war greed of the 1920s and commenting (obliquely) on the ubiquity of human nature and repeating patterns of history.

O'Neill needed more of the Marx Brothers to make his comedy zing – and that, plus many extras, is what Waterwell brings to the text. They are irreverent, conflating and confusing their innovations with O'Neill's scenes, playing freely with everything, but always returning to the script as their base. The transitions are so seamless that at times the O'Neill seems to be the insertion, like his joke about the Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Christian beside a tree. Or the scenes in which Marco astounds the new pope and the Kaan with his arrogance.

The play is acted mostly on the lower level of the stage. Above is a four-person band offering jazzed up pop-tunes, like "All of Me," and a spying place for the Kaan. A Brechtian running narration (Kevin Townley) adds a tone that is reflected in the sometimes gangster costumes and film noir lighting. The love scenes, delivered in an anti-sentimental, again Brechtian style with the lovers facing us, add a light comical touch and keep up the sprightly pace.

Waterwell inserts ballroom dancing; some modern ballet (choreographed by Lynn Peterson); a torch song; corny puns about traveling through Asia– If the hordes don't get you, the whores will; a workers strike; lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's catchy "Kubla Kaan"; a poetry slam; anachronisms; and a dumb show to O'Neill dialogue read by the narrator. A vaudeville routine of anxious people on line, with whoever finds himself first running to the end, is particularly effective in conveying fear -- and in being funny. You never know what to expect, and it's all impressive.

Since all five performers are credited with writing the adaptation, it was obviously based on improvisations. The free-ranging creativity is part of the appeal of the show – but so is the remarkable attention to theatrical details – in the costumes by Elizabeth Payne, the acting, and the sensitivity to modern sensibility. O'Neill closed the play with Marco returned to Italy, reuniting with his corpulent, aging love and releasing a stream of precious gems from his sleeves. The invisible guests ignore his long speech and dig in to the feast, creating a "perfect clamor of knives and forks." Waterwell substitutes a choral tune with lots of harmony but only one word, "Money" (original music by Lauren Cregor). "Money" ends the remarkable evening (about 100 minutes, no intermission) with parody and song. As the actor playing Eugene O'Neill says, "I think these kids are doing a terrific job. Just what I had in mind when I wrote this play in 1926."

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