Fort Worth — Playwright Kieran Lynn has a knack for finding offbeat and illuminating angles on the zeitgeist: the absurdist logic of borders and wars in Crossing the Line (Incident at the Border); a farmer’s plan to “take back” the countryside from non-native species in Bunnies; the imminent death of the Arctic in Breaking the Ice. With the world premiere of The Trap at Amphibian Stage Productions, Lynn takes one of the galvanizing issues of the recent election—the big fish/little fish economic inequities of modern democracy—and puts both a place and a face (or rather, four faces) on the subject.
Newspaper legend Mike Royko once suggested a change to Chicago’s city motto, from “Urbs in horta” (City in a garden) to the more accurate “Ubi est mea?” (Where’s mine?). And that’s the question everyone in The Trap seems to be asking as they stumble, bumble and burgle their way toward a hoped-for prosperity. Directed by Mary Catherine Burke with an eye to the play’s brisk pace and darkling tone, this is a snark-filled and timely take on our money-mad world that packs a lot into its 90-minute run time.
Tom (Justin Lemieux) works for a cheerfully rapacious payday loan company called Debt Duck. He’s a mild-mannered fellow—so how is it we find him breaking and entering with intent to clean out the office safe? His girlfriend Clem (Sarah Rutan) reminds him what’s at stake: branch manager Alan (Bob Hess) just chopped Tom’s pay and work hours; they’re here to claw back the money stolen—legally, says Clem, but not ethically—from Tom’s paycheck. She argues from a solid (if unexpected) classical viewpoint: after all, she says, aren’t money-lenders like Alan found in well-deserved 14th-century torment on one of the lower levels of Dante’s Inferno?
Strangely, Tom has the keys to the safe (we get the details later), so the actual burglary is a snap—but not the getaway. They hear Alan at the door, fumbling with the over-sensitive new office alarm (Rebecca Allard). Tom and Clem are discovered, and try out a few scrambling versions of the untruth to see what Alan might buy.
Here’s where The Trap goes careening off the straight rails of reality, as—just when Tom and Clem’s theft might be found out—the three characters are thrown into existential reverse gear. With a jazzy ’20s-inflected soundtrack featuring a wah-wah muted trumpet (great sound choices from David Lanza) and pulsing on-off lights (by clever designer Kenneth Farnsworth) providing maximum confusion, they quick-march back in time—to a meeting Alan had days ago with a fourth character, company hotshot Meryl (Cara Serber). Get used to the reverse engineering; this is the way we’ll get from one scene to another throughout the play, as Lynn connects the dots that led to tonight’s burglary.
Meryl is here to put the “P” in “predatory.” She’s a white-toothed and genial shark: Debt Duck is in trouble, she thinks, so she’s making the smart move, “squeezing” the last nickel out of those below her on the food chain, starting with Alan. He doesn’t like it? Meryl encourages him to do the same thing to his borrowers—and to Tom, his last employee.
Meryl is the clever apologist. The mega-banks get away with murder, she says, so why does everyone point the finger of morality at this much smaller corner of the “debt industry”? (Scenic designer Seancolin Hankins’ office-drear set confirms we’re in the bush leagues of High Finance.) Debt Duck sells a product people need, Meryl argues, and she looks to Shakespeare and the Bible for confirmation that loans with cripplingly high interest rates are “an important part of society.” Later in the play, Alan’s attempt to recap her argument goes hilariously awry; it’s like listening to your uncle get “inventive” to support a political position. And Alan needs to believe: he’s in trouble with a gang of Estonians—or Bostonians?—who just don’t care that his personal and business habits are crashing together at a most inconvenient time.
Lemieux and Rutan are the “regular folk” of the piece, and play nimbly against one another as engagingly opposite personalities. Lemieux gives Tom a sweet-tempered aura (“I think I am a candy ass,” he admits) that matches his micro-view of life. By nature a helper, Tom seems the kind of guy who cares most about the needs of people right in front of him. If Alan wants to avoid death by gangster, Tom is his best bet. Rutan’s strong, forward-leaning Clem is obsessed with the bigger picture: VIPs are getting away with grand theft, little people are left on the hook. Why, she says, should we be the Last Nice People on earth? One of the play’s more poignant moments is Clem’s realization that she can’t afford even her most minimal dreams—and feels like she’s living somebody else’s life, not one she chose.
Serber is chillingly hilarious as the utterly self-confident Meryl, sure of her facts and philosophy about the world she lives in: a place where government exists to protect the economy and support the rich—while keeping “the rest of us” just happy enough to put off the revolution. Her stiletto-heeled grace and bright smile don’t fool us: she’s out to win this game—no other options need apply.
Hess has the moustache-twitching angst of a man playing both sides against the middle. With his camel sport coat and blow-dried hair, he’s the Platonic middle manager—a big man in his own mind who fawns over anyone bigger who comes in the room. Still, he’s the play’s useful idiot, one who is, against the advice of Hamlet, both “a borrower and a lender”—and for that reason, he experiences the business as both predator and victim. It’s a heavy burden for one rather thoughtless man to carry—but Alan surprises us with an astute analysis of just how and why our society pushes us to “keep hitting that ‘Buy’ button.”
All four actors have a physicality that’s on good display in their roles as the play’s walking time machines. Sleek in their ninja/jewel thief blacks from designer Brittny Mahan (all but Alan, who sticks like glue to his business attire) they dance backwards through every move—and stick the landing on the next plot point of the convoluted timeline.
Feeling a bit lite-beer in its first few minutes, The Trap finishes strong as a shot of whisky—and (when the audience begins to wonder if “we” aren’t a lot like “them”) may be followed by a quick chaser of rue and recognition.
D Magazine’s April edition includes an article on the $5.8 billion payday loan market in Texas: Texas lenders charge some of the highest payday loan rates in the USA, and some Texas urban areas have more loan “shops” than anywhere else in the country: along with Los Angeles and Harris counties (Houston), Dallas and Tarrant counties fill the “Top Four” spots.
It’s something the play asks us to think about, and well within Amphibian’s stated mission to ask the hard questions about society: just how complicit “we the people” are if we let unreasonable or “extortionate” lending practices go on—ones that could one day lead us, family, friends or neighbors into…The Trap.