Until that point in the play, at least in director M. Graham Smith’s meticulous but overly busy staging of the world premiere at Crowded Fire Theater, things are pretty confusing.
Although we know that this is a play about attitudes toward money, position and power, the proceedings are just about as mystifying as the title.
Henry (George Sellner), a humble nurse, and Amy, his successful investment banker wife (Zehra Berkman, attractive in a blond pageboy), are lounging in the park.
While an easygoing Henry eats an ice cream cone, Amy arranges and rearranges herself self-consciously on the picnic blanket, with an undercurrent of anxiety — a quietly intriguing beginning that ultimately fails to sufficiently illuminate the play’s theme.
When they spot Amy’s work colleague Max (Kevin Clarke) and his wife, Sara (Marilee Talkington), formally dressed and carrying shopping bags and a stand-up lamp, they hope the other couple won’t notice them, But Max and Sara do approach, and it’s clear that something is terribly amiss. When the couples temporarily split apart (the two women wander off to sail a paper boat on a pond), that’s when things come into focus as Max offers up a pitiful confession to Henry.
Roper’s play, full of deceptively banal dialogue, fraught and awkward pauses, unpredictable actions and offbeat reactions, calls to mind Edward Albee, even at times the nonsensical world of Eugene Ionesco.
But it is very much of the moment — a bleak and satirical look at the prime mortgage meltdown and the plight of the haves-turned-have-nots.
In her own oblique way, Roper is exploring ruthless ambition, existential despair (“Sometimes there’s nothing to do but lie on the floor and count the light bulbs,” remarks Sara, a housewife who still fantasizes about her glory days of horseback riding) and materialism run amok.
Roper’s characters know that money can’t buy happiness, but that knowledge doesn’t help matters.
“We live in exciting times!” Amy insists smugly and repeatedly.
Berkman’s sly and ruthless Amy and Talkington’s embarrassingly helpless Sara prove more interesting than the men, both in terms of character and acting. But Roper’s style may be an acquired taste, and Smith’s direction is at times heavy-handed.
She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange
Presented by Crowded Fire Theater
Where: Thick House, 695 18th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; closes April 12
Tickets: $15 to $35
Contact: (415) 746-9238, www.crowdedfire.org