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Open: 06/17/09- Close: 06/26/09 Monetizing Emma
Reviewed for By: Bryan Clark

Monetizing Emma, a new play by Felipe Ossa, is running as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity at the 440 Studios Box Theater. A wry commentary on adolescent female psychology, gender roles in the workplace and the role of money in post-recession America, Monetizing Emma is engaging and clever—though the structure occasionally meanders and most of the revelations are no-brainers. A future setting of 2013 is established by one-off references such as the economic crisis of 2009 and the complete fusion of the internet and television into the “webtube.”

James Arden and Janice Mann play Tony and Colleen, rival account managers at the financial firm T. Walsh. The company has the novel idea of a Genius Trust, which will sell bonds against the future earnings of bright young high school students—who will be given college scholarships in return. (The student spin is fresh, but the basic idea is not actually so novel. David Bowie began issuing “Bowie Bonds” against his own future royalties in 1997.) Tony and Colleen begin the play with an argument about the value of one of their prospective “monitizees,” but as her full potential becomes clear they quickly turn to competing for her account.

This prize student is Emma, played with remarkable complexity and finesse by Nitya Vidyasagar in a standout performance that carries the show. She thrives in her several “online” soliloquies, and is strongly connected and comfortable with each of the five other performers. Tovah Rose and Daniella Rabbanni are brilliantly broad as Annie and Vanessa, Emma’s Catholic schoolmate bully-friends, and Dawn Jamieson delivers a sly interpretation of Emma’s mother Caroline. Leah Bonvissuto’s direction is tight and nuanced, with cinematic close-ups encouraged. This camera acting works well in the small space—for all but Mr. Arden and Ms Mann, who are meant to balance Emma at the show’s dramatic center but unfortunately have almost no onstage chemistry.

Sharply tailored lights (Lauren Parrish) and sound (uncredited) make up for the lack of a set (Jasmine Vogue Pai), in a room which is not so much a theatre as a rehearsal room with black drapes and chairs. Costume design (Mira Veikley) is inconsistent: amusing on the rich girls, appropriate on Emma and her mother, and strangely static on Tony and Colleen. If the idea is that these two characters “don’t change,” it doesn’t fly. Weeks pass and they don’t change their strangely unflattering clothes, though they have ample offstage time to do so.

Some details of the script are not fully thought through. The cheeky choice to establish Hillary Clinton as the president is made too casually. Such a scenario implies that Obama was not re-nominated by his party in 2012, or that he chose not to run again, or that he was assassinated in his first term. None of these notions have anything to do with this play, but the door occasionally stands open to distraction by such loose ends. Still, the core premise is strong, and the twists are intriguing even when they are transparent. Every scene that features Nitya Vidyasagar has a radiant glow—and as the title character of Monetizing Emma, she conveniently spends most of the show onstage.

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Black Box @ 440 Studios : 440 Lafayette St, 3rd Floor