When the New York stock market crashed in October of 1929, it triggered the beginning of the Great Depression, bringing a sudden end to the prosperity of America and the decadence of the Roaring Twenties, dramatically altering the personal lives of those who lived through it, or didn’t. Presented by Less Than Rent Theatre, The Panic of ‘29, a new play with music by Graham Techler, offers a hilarious farcical reimagining of the Great Crash and its aftermath, in a limited world-premiere engagement Off-Broadway at 59E59.
Directed by Max Friedman (Midnight at The Never Get), the rapid-fire narrative moves from the executive office of the New York Stock Exchange and a speakeasy called The Ruby Room to the streets of NYC after the economic collapse, following the journey of financiers, nightclub denizens, hobos, cops, gun-toting vigilantes, and others through a series of dense chaotic interactions in shifting vignettes. Eight years later, the survivors find themselves in a boarding house in Niagara Falls, being scammed by a trio of French con artists, and ultimately as puzzled witnesses to the dropping of the first atomic bomb. It’s all laugh-out-loud uproarious, with running gags and funny wordplays, but comes with a serious underlying message of the ill effects of duplicity, greed, desperation, violence, and gullibility, and the need for a support system of friends and family to get through the hardest of times.
Techler jam-packs the show with clever nods to the age of pulp fiction (at the height of popularity in the 1920s-40s), the transition from silent films to talkies (1927), the shift from Pre-Code Hollywood to Motion Picture Production Code (in the decade of the 1920s), and the genres of screwball comedy (of the ’30s and ’40s) and film noir (beginning in the 1940s), adding appeal for history buffs, aficionados of crime mysteries, and fans of old movies, as well as theatergoers. There are also original songs interspersed throughout the play, with orchestrations and arrangements by Barrett Riggins, which perfectly capture the authentic styles of the flapper era and the subsequent Depression. And a committed cast of ten, many appearing in a number of parts, deliver the old-style voices and characterizations with spot-on timing and comedic flair.
The singular lead roles feature the across-the-board outstanding Brian Morabito as the conniving Richard Whitney, a chief officer at the stock exchange who lies to the press and the public about the severity of the economic situation and continues his efforts to bilk the people of what little money they have left; Olivia Puckett as his judicious and caring secretary Dot, who does all she can to help those in need and welcomes everyone into her boarding house; Julia Knitel as the golden-throated singer Lady Generosity, who represents the liberated flapper and is as passionate about performing her heartfelt songs as she is with her lovers; Joyelle Nicole Johnson as Eva, a devoted sister and friend, who suffers from alcoholism and depression after the death of her sibling, but comes to the rescue to fight the bad guys when needed; and Will Roland as the Crimes Magazine writer Jimmy Armstrong, whose colorful stories (literally, using colors as the main descriptive adjectives in his hack work) blend fiction with the reality of what’s going on around him, as the Broadway veteran (Dear Evan Hanson; Be More Chill) completely nails the period-style delivery of his lines and the over-the-top humor of the parody.
The remaining members of the highly entertaining and talented cast take on multiple roles, convincingly changing their demeanors and accents to suit the characters – sometimes instantaneously. Will Turner is a standout as the consecutive love interests of Lady Generosity – the poetic Irish cop and the country drifter who plays his guitar and sings, recalling the folk stylings of Woody Guthrie. Making a noteworthy professional debut is Jaela Cheeks-Lomax as Eva’s sick but positive sister Ingrid, a down-and-out hobo, and a naïve beekeeper. Rounding out the engaging ensemble are Rachel B. Joyce, Jared Loftin, and RJ Vaillancourt, portraying a variety of other assorted characters, from a squealing regular at the speakeasy, questioning reporters, the cop killer Tommy Gun Tommy, financial associates, cops, detectives, and Parisian grifters with sidesplitting exaggerated accents and laughably obvious falsifications about who they are and what they’re doing there.
A smart bi-level scenic design by Friedman allows the large cast to move efficiently from one locale to another around the small stage (with a witty use of draped fabric to represent the Falls) and props by Brandy Hoang Collier include old-fashioned telephones, guns, victrola, microphone, and tiny figurines (so as not to spoil the laughs, you’ll have to see for yourself how those are employed!). Costumes by Corina Chase are suited to the characters’ professions and the era, and lighting by Jamie Roderick is dark and moody, in keeping with the atmosphere of crime stories and film noir. Lexi Orphanos’s fight and intimacy direction is well executed by the actors, and Margaret Montagna’s expert sound design effectively transports us into the times, places, and situations of the complex narrative.
If you love dark parodic comedy and enjoy revisiting a bygone era with an eye on the laughs and the lessons to be learned, don’t miss The Panic of ’29.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 25 minutes, including an intermission.
The Panic of ‘29 plays through Saturday, August 20, 2022, at 59E59, Theater B, 59 East 59th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $40 for the general public, $30 for members), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times inside.
Before you go, you can watch a trailer of the show here: