(Like All of Us)
Chalk it up to my inflated expectations, which mirrored those of so many homeowners and bankers who thought the market could only go up. I headed to Theater Oobleck’s production of “Casanova Takes a Bath” sure that the great 18th Century lover could shed light on our national love affair that went bust.
After seeing David Isaacson’s clever and witty docudrama, I left feeling slightly duped by an inspired marketing campaign. And perhaps that’s the financial crisis’ best obit: A Meltdown by Marketing & Math.
My expectations were dashed when the play began and no bathtub was in sight. It never appeared and the audience came to realize that the “bath” was a metaphor for investors’ fecklessness and staggering losses. Then, Isaacson appeared throughout the play in modern garb for his other role, contemporary narrator and financial explicator.
Shuttling back and forth between historical periods (and conflating various episodes from the six volumes of Casanova’s “History of My Life”, Isaacson names Pietro Colonda, who blackmailed Casanova and Count Rinaldi as the treacherous villains, matched today by Lloyd Blankfein, head of the investment bank, Goldman Sachs and University of Chicago finance expert, Eugene Fama.
Nobel-Prize winner Fama joins the Hall of Blame for his theory of “Efficient Markets” which holds markets as rational and self-governing. The theory is at the heart of the faulty mathematical models underlying such toxic financial tools infamously known as derivatives, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and mortgage-backed securities.
In the play, Isaacson points at a board full of equations and says, “After all, you can’t quarrel with the math”. Math (the handiwork of the young MBA “quants” in the banks’ boiler rooms) so complicated that even savvy bank CEOs worldwide could neither understand nor explain
At the end, Casanova is duped by Count Rinaldi who tricks the great lover into playing a card game “on trust”. Similarly, investors were tripped up by piles of worthless paper (New York Times here) that Isaacson tosses in the air with glee.
Isaacson started out with a brilliant conceit and deserves credit for casting some historical and comic light on our current distress. I think less contextual jockeying back and forth and a production played more baldly as farce (with Casanova definitely in the tub) would have fared better. This mixed bag production is a perfect way to summarize my reaction.
A founding member of Theater Oobleck which specializes in productions which blend history, a pinch of philosophy and current events, Isaacson has written 14 plays for the troupe, including “Rumsfeld’s Attic” and “The Making of Freud”. He’s portrayed Saul Bellow in Oobleck’s “Strauss at Midnight”.
The show closes after this weekend’s performances at Prop Thtr, 3502 North Elston. Performances are Friday and Saturday evening at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 7. For reservations, call 773/347-1041 or online at www.theateroobleck.com.