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Conspicuous consumption

Affluenza! finds humor in a world rich in avarice and greed

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Like a symphonic overture, a rhapsody on eBay sets the stage for Jewish Theatre of the South's comedy Affluenza! Acquisition-crazed Jerome (David Marshall Silverman) types furiously on his laptop while praising his own prowess at outbidding other online shoppers. At the close of one Internet auction (for a pointless piece of pop memorabilia), Jerome preens with victory, trash-talks his rival bidders and even gives the computer screen the finger.

And did I mention it's entirely in rhyme? James Sherman, a playwright best known for safe audience-pleasers like Beau Jest, crafts Affluenza! as an elaborate homage to Moliere's 17th-century satirical comedies. Playing through Oct. 2 at Jewish Theatre of the South, Affluenza! unfolds in rhymed couplets with a purposeful playfulness in the sound of words. As Jerome says of his eBay obsession, "The raison d'être of this razzmatazz/Is so I can have something no one else has."

Affluenza! aims for higher ambitions than you often see in commercial stage comedies. Sherman's style takes overt pleasure in the musicality of the English language. The title's made-up word "affluenza" suggests an ailment brought on by having too much affluence -- or maybe not enough of it. And just as Moliere populated his works with the embodiments of human vice, so does Sherman use Affluenza! to skewer the modern ruling class. It evokes a nation of high-rise condos and gated communities filled with people like Jerome, who measure their corporate success, political power and personal fulfillment only by how many Hummers, designer outfits and nubile companions they can buy.

The avatar of avarice, laziness and vulgarity, Jerome is a true believer in Gordon Gecko's "Greed is good," just so long as he doesn't have to do any actual work. In previous productions, Silverman has given fuzzy performances as huggable mensches, but Jerome's venality energizes and liberates the actor.

Sherman uses Jerome to illustrate the link -- fresh from recent op-ed pieces -- between individual greed and institutional misdeeds. Act Two begins with Jerome speculating about forming his own crooked company, announcing an IPO and cashing in. Heedless that he might be dating the script, Sherman freely drops names of the decade's most crooked corporate execs, from Enron to Arthur Anderson. In perhaps the show's most puckish couplet, Jerome exclaims, "Just like John Rigas of Aldephia/I will get wealthia and wealthia!"

The son of deep-pocketed William Moore (Neil Alan), Jerome suspects his father's young paramour, Dawn (Megan Hayes), of craving the old man's money. Seemingly sweet-natured, does Dawn want Moore, or does she merely want ... more? The simple plot merely provides the frame for a caustic portrait of America's current aristocracy. The players also include William's vain ex-wife, Ruth (Kathleen McManus), who plans a complete body renovation from Botox to dermaplating; and milquetoast cousin Eugene (Brandon O'Dell), who falls prey to the temptations of privilege. Meanwhile, William alternates from being a disappointed tightwad, hurling insults at his conniving family, to a love-struck simp whenever Dawn's around.

The rhymes bring their own problems, however. In Moliere productions, the translated verse and at times antiquated language usually feel of a piece with the silly stories and period details. But Affluenza! strives to be of the moment -- the program identifies the play's time as "Now" -- so when characters use outdated words like "lout" or "dunce," it sounds like Sherman is using his rhyming dictionary as a crutch. Sherman simply doesn't have the same mastery of nimble language as, say David Ives or Tom Stoppard. Sometimes the singsong tone of the delivery proves all too easy to tune out.

But Sherman might be onto something by updating Moliere's comedy of manners. Compared to popular but disposable stage farces like Moon Over Buffalo, Affluenza! has comic teeth. It's not that director Heidi Cline avoids big, broad gags -- quite the reverse. With pratfalls, groin injuries and towering tantrums, the performances are all a hair's breadth from going over the top. The best sight gags illustrate the family ensnared in venal values, such as William's assistant Bernard (Spencer G. Stephens), holding his Blackberry at crotch level, as if it's the measure of his manhood. William and Bernard stagger home laden with packages like shopoholic Sherpas.

In its sharpest moments, Affluenza! feels not vaguely "contemporary" but set refreshingly in the present. Characters use modern catchphrases to justify their crass materialism: "I want to be a good American! If I don't shop, the terrorists win!" By having William rail about the Starbucks on every corner, Sherman emphasizes out-of-control commercialism as a pressing modern problem, and not a trivial theatrical problem that vanishes when the actors take their final bows.

Like Moliere, Sherman can spell out his moral message a little too blatantly, through William longing for a simpler life or Bernard sending off the audience with a mandate to "Be nice." Affluenza! doesn't need to lecture us, since its antiheroes' nasty actions and voracious appetites speak for themselves.

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