Jan. 21, 2005


A Touch of the "land of Nod"
By David Ollington


(l to r) Kip Niven, Jennifer James Bradshaw, Sean Grennan and Martin English in American Heartland Theatre’s Affluenza! by playwright James Sherman, Jan. 7 – Feb. 20.

Capitalism nurtures abundant consumerism. Media bombards us daily with urgent messages to buy. Television commercials, billboards, magazine ads display a myriad of imagery and rhetoric creating need in the populace to purchase. Playwright James Sherman chose this theme to create a contemporary farce Affluenza! now playing at the American Heartland Theatre.

The program for Affluenza! lists, following the pertinent production information such as cast and staff names, and biographies, diagnostic questions to see if the reader suffers from "Affluenza," — a compulsive buying disorder (the program never really defines the disease).

It goes on with, "If you have answered yes to more than three of the above statements, you have contracted Affluenza! Please for your own good, try these handy tips for beating Affluenza!" (emphasis theirs)

The tips advise thrifty approaches to buying, like avoiding the mall and eliminating unnecessary luxuries. Ironically, they nestled this advice between pages of color ads for jewelry, restaurants, interior designers and luxury hotels. The Heartland's wet bar even contributed a list of specialty drinks, created and promoted specifically for this production. However, the list of advice for the Affluenza-afflicted seems to suggest that avoiding the purchase of a specialty drink at intermission for a visit to the water fountain makes for a wiser choice.

Sherman made a unique stylistic choice for the play: He wrote everything in rhyming verse. As he began to write, he realized that he was dealing with classical archetypes, reminiscent of the 17th century French dramatist, Molière, who wrote predominantly in rhyme.

The script itself contains specific references to Molière's plays Tartuffe and The Misanthrope. Molière's theatre came out of a long tradition of poetic language in the theatre, prosaic recitations for royalty. The audience in 17th century France expected to hear poetry. Even though Sherman interspersed the verse with contemporary references to Martha Stewart, Leona Helmsley and Enron for example, the style of the language fails to touch the modern viewer. Today's audience listens with an ear accustomed to the fast clip of a sitcom or the quick, surprising barb of Neil Simon. In order to match his rhyming scheme, Sherman gave each character long-winded lines that manage to pull back the pace of the event. (I overheard an audience member at intermission say to another, "I heard you were dozing off.")

Not only do Sherman's words slow the action of Affluenza!, but also the predictability of his plot makes for a show short on surprises.

The members of the Moore family connive against each other to acquire the estate of William Moore (Kip Niven), the elderly, wealthy patriarch. Ruth (Merle Moores), the ex-wife, desires hundreds of thousands of dollars for plastic surgery. The son, Jerome, played by the articulate Sean Grennan, wants money to feed his addiction to meaningless purchases on eBay.

Enter Jennifer Bradshaw, striking and witty, as Dawn. Young Dawn has won William's affections by reading him poetry and spending quality time with him. Ruth and Jerome both suspect her true colors, and once William proposes to and marries Dawn, the predictable manifests. Dawn transforms from mouse to conniving gold-digger, elated at her newly acquired affluence.

Jerome, determined to make Dawn's avarice known to his father, has the nerdy nephew Eugene (Martin English) attempt to seduce her, to prove her disloyalty. He has William hide behind a screen (a very Molière device) as Eugene clumsily tries to entice Dawn's affections. We see it coming that despite the awkwardness of Eugene's advances, he and Dawn will connect.

Sherman wove the butler Bernard (Elijah Murray) in and out of the story. He makes wry commentary on the shadiness of the others and firmly holds a dear reverence for William. The character also possesses versatile skills. When William needs a lawyer, we learn Bernard is an attorney. He later dons the garb of an energetically evangelical minister, then a rabbi. We start knowing that when they need a qualified professional, Bernard will have another costume change.

The highest stakes in the plot center on the recipient of the estate; William shows age and failing health. It's easy to guess which character will win.
The Heartland wisely chose a cast of classically trained actors, all of whom handle the material competently. Jennifer Bradshaw as Dawn takes us on a journey, a corrupt Cinderella. Bradshaw enters as a quiet bookworm, soft spoken and small. After the marriage, we see a triumphant shake of the hip — a part of her body that hasn't moved yet. The glasses come off, and Bradshaw becomes a sultry, manipulative and stunningly gorgeous trophy wife. Bradshaw gets the biggest laugh in the show when, as the lavish version of Dawn, she declares, "If we don't shop, the terrorists will win."

Del Unruh's set is perfect, lush and grand. The actors have fun and do well. Sherman, however, made an unfortunate experiment with the language.

Affluenza! runs through Feb. 20 at the American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center. Call 816-842-9999 for tickets or visit

David Ollington can be contacted at



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