Life in LA There is Wicked Affluence in Beverly Hills

One cozy theater venue in Beverly Hills warns of wealth’s woes. Larry Eisenberg directs and David Hunt Stafford produces Affluence at Theatre 40.

A play written by Chicagoan Steven Peterson, Affluence is the winner of the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild’s 2013 Julie Harris Playwriting Award.

Peterson has done an excellent job crafting a play about the mid-holiday malaise that plagues many an upper-middle-class home in America. You are invited to indulge in Peterson’s subtly sadistic recount of a hellish holiday phenomenon that takes place in 2010, on the heels of the Great Recession’s very worst.

Introducing the Woodley family, whose funny money evokes wicked greed and treachery among its members. Robert Woodley, Jr. (Lloyd Pedersen) is the humble patriarch that endures emotional as well as physical abuse at the hands of his highly domineering wife Jean Woodley (Rhonda Lord). Jean has been accused of swiping pain medication, and the aging couple is at odds over Jean’s pricey legal problems and the mounting publicity that suffocates her predicament. But it does not take long to discover that Robert’s ailing mother Namoo’s (Nan Tepper) imminent death is the main focus of the couple’s obsession over money.

Mr. Peterson weaves up a neat mess of circumstances for his choice group of upper crusters that involves muted yuletide cheer, mounds of wrapping paper on the living room floor, piles of overpriced merchandise—and murder? Included in the group is Barbara (Ilona Kulinska), aka Beanie, the clever college-aged daughter, and Arthird (Justin Huff), aka Robert III, supreme doofus and heir to the Woodley family’s future fortune, which hangs in the balance.

It’s the day after Christmas 2010, and all through the Woodley house, the entire family rallies around the expiring matriarch Namoo, who is not dying fast enough, at least for Jean’s morbid taste. If Namoo dies after New Year’s Eve, the United States 2011 death tax threatens to take a huge chunk out of their inheritance, to the tune of $4 million—money that Jean and Robert both crave in order to assuage their legal and financial distress. Ultimately, Namoo’s faithful Latina nurse Inez (Christine Uhebe), aka “the best caregiver [she] ever had,” emerges as the Woodley family savior at a decisive December 31st hour—but in the unlikeliest of ways.

Mr. Peterson’s premise—that affluence ain’t all about the money—cascades throughout the entire play, and is noticeable in every aspect. (For example, notice Daddy Woodley’s modestly tattered garb in relation to Jean’s materialism coupled with her unabashed thirst for extravagance.) The elements of greed that abound intensify the action, which takes place in a cold and dull living room setting. So Affluence’s success is extremely storyline dependent.

At the same time, Peterson’s narrative is not in the least taxing on the cerebrum. Beanie’s infectious charm, Jean’s superiority complex, Arthird’s feeblemindedness, Robert’s passionate commitment to his family, and Namoo’s reserved aggression are all familiar notes that Peterson strikes to pluck at the heartstrings. Moreover, Peterson’s characters’ extreme behaviors contrast beautifully within the eerie uncomfy confines of the cleverly designed set—much thanks to Jeff G. Rack, resident designer for Theatre 40.

Rhonda Lord has been a member of Theatre 40 for more than 25 years. She serves on the Artistic Committee, and wears many hats within the troupe. Lord gives an explosive portrayal of the money-loving, power-hungry, drug-addicted Jean. Her performance, alone, is worth a trip to the Reuben Cordova Theatre at Beverly Hills High.

Affluence is a play that compounds the holiday blues with a web of familial sorrows and triumphs.