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Burning Question 

Can arson save the family business in 'Cash Flow'?

More than a year after America's top CEOs began practicing the perp walk, D.B. Gilles' comedy Cash Flow remains timely, but somewhat quaint.

It's about a small publishing firm on the brink of ruin and how its executives scheme to save the business, and not incidentally, their jobs. The play is timely because corporate malfeasance is still rampant, starting with the corporation that is the U.S. government. It's quaint, because Ken Lay and friends didn't seem to agonize over their illegal activities the way the executives in Cash Flow do. Lie, cheat, steal--today, it's surely just part of the MBA curriculum.

The play, currently on the boards at Live Theatre Workshop, is set in early 1988, just as Ronald Reagan, after eight years of reinstating greed and dishonesty as America's moral imperatives, was about to shuffle off to drooling dementia. It was a time when a few business folks still had something resembling a conscience, and that's what enables the characters in Cash Flow to argue for a full 90 minutes over whether or not to save the business by burning down the warehouse and collecting the insurance money. Today, the question wouldn't be whether to do it, but how to make the arsonist's payment look like a capital investment.

The publishing firm's sales manager, Casey McDermott (Bruce Bieszki), is the one pushing for arson. "This isn't wrong," he says. "It's just another way of cutting expenses." Chief accountant Marty Blasingame (John McRostie), a frightened man who declares that he thrives on monotony, advocates filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a relatively honorable way out even though it will destroy the family-owned company's reputation. CEO Elliot Gallagher (Cliff Madison), the young and unprepared inheritor of the firm, is leaning toward bringing in an unsavory partner. But Elliot is unable to stand up to the arguments of Casey, the sort of amoral bully familiar from Glengarry Glen Ross and In The Company of Men.

Even the arsonist called in for an interview (Tony Eckstat) has a better-defined conscience than the businessmen. Might it be wiser, just maybe, to develop the ambitious computer-assisted educational program advocated by the editorial chief (Maria Fletcher), and fund it with--horror of horrors--Elliot's own money? Does Elliot even have the guts to consider doing the right thing?

Spread that out over an hour and a half, and you've got the action of Cash Flow. This is not a plot-driven play; it's a character study, and its success hinges on how well the three lead actors negotiate their roles. Fear not; Live Theatre Workshop's production does, indeed, succeed.

Madison's Elliot is anguished and impotent, but well-meaning; McRostie's Marty finds honor through complacency and fear, if nothing else; Bieszki's Casey is the quintessential small-time corporate jerk, motivated by money and power but not by the work ethic needed to achieve money and power on a grand scale. Bieszki also directs the play, keeping the characters' various pathologies neatly distinct from one another.

In the secondary roles, Fletcher develops a nicely confident, teasing relationship with the main trio, and Eckstat as the arsonist saunters in just long enough to give the play a moral center.

This is one of the company's simplest productions of late--a minimal set, hardly any props, no music and not much stage business except for a careful choreography that plays to the entire theater-in-the-round. Nothing to distract from the text and its delivery--just the sort of leanness and integrity that today's business world so desperately needs.

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