WELLESLEY — The constellation of talent assembled for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Wendy Wasserstein’s “Old Money’’ — especially Will Lyman and Jeremiah Kissel, the Ruth and Gehrig of Boston actors — is bright enough to raise your hopes that you’re in for a special evening.
But those hopes steadily crumble as it becomes dismayingly clear that Wasserstein’s wafer-thin satire of the rich and would-be rich will not add up to a satisfying, or even coherent, play, despite the stylish and energetic direction by Karen MacDonald.
And that talented cast, which also includes Amanda Collins, Ed Hoopman, Eliott Purcell, Jordan Clark, Josephine Moshiri Elwood, and Veronica Anastasio Wiseman? They’re all dressed up — quite handsomely, thanks to costume designer Charles Schoonmaker — but they have nowhere to go, dramatically speaking, despite the time-traveling device on which “Old Money’’ rests.
Wasserstein built her play on the promising notion of exploring the parallels between two eras a century apart when it came to wealth, status, and social climbing — capitalism’s time-honored rites of getting and having.
But “Old Money’’ gestures at these ideas more often than it explores them. The play founders on a sea of half-baked themes, superficial characterizations, and facile social observations, not to mention unearned showdowns, arbitrary hookups, and laboriously dropped names (Martha Stewart, Madeleine Albright, Sonny Mehta, Barry Diller — honestly, I lost count). Wasserstein didn’t seem to know how to end her play, either; you keep thinking you’ve heard the curtain line, only to learn you haven’t.
The reputation of Wasserstein, who died in 2006 at age 55, principally rests on works like “Uncommon Women and Others’’ (her breakthrough play), “The Sisters Rosensweig,’’ “Isn’t It Romantic,’’ and especially her Pulitzer-winning “The Heidi Chronicles,’’ revived a few years ago on Broadway with Elisabeth Moss in the lead.
“Old Money,’’ which premiered in 2000, is in another, lesser league, reposing in Wasserstein’s oeuvre next to flawed plays like “An American Daughter,’’ a 1997 political drama about a nominee for US surgeon general who is caught up in a media frenzy, presented at Williamstown Theatre Festival two summers ago.
The action in “Old Money’’ shuttles back and forth from the year 2000, when Wall Street arbitrage hotshot Jeffrey Bernstein (Kissel) is hosting a dinner party and luxuriating in his Fifth Avenue mansion (the elegant set was designed by Jon Savage), to the early 1900s, when we see the original occupants of the mansion, including the bullying tycoon Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer (Hoopman).
Each cast member portrays a figure from each era. A partial list would include the crass movie producer (Hoopman again) who is pressuring Jeffrey to help him gain a seat on a museum board. (“Honey, wasn’t it Henry James who wrote that Scorsese movie with Winona?’’ the producer asks his wife, an online lingerie designer played by Clark.) Elwood is the producer’s troubled daughter, while Collins plays a party publicist named, so help me, Flinty McGee. In addition to Jeffrey, Kissel plays a department store owner in the earlier period who encounters anti-Semitism when he tries to gain a seat on the museum board. Meanwhile, Purcell portrays the sons of Jeffrey and Tobias, and Wiseman is an underappreciated and embittered sculptor who is Jeffrey’s sister-in-law.
Got all that? The play is sometimes hard to follow, but a bigger problem is that whenever you think it will cohere into something more than poses and outbursts, it fizzles. Though playwright Wasserstein endowed her characters with dilemmas large and small, she gave the audience scant reason to care about any of them, save one: a terminally ill writer in a seersucker suit and a bow tie, played by Lyman and named Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer III, who is the grandson of the house’s original owner. (Lyman also portrays the house’s original architect in the scenes set in the early 1900s.)
Lyman comes closest to making “Old Money’’ mean something. He brings his natural gravitas and an undertow of sorrow to Tobias III as scenes from the present melt into, and sometimes overlap with, scenes from a past that predates his birth. It is moving to see the writer try to figure out what his life has added up to.
Beyond that, alas, “Old Money’’ doesn’t add up to much.
Play by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Karen MacDonald. Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. At Sorenson Center for the Arts, Babson College, Wellesley, through March 18. Tickets $25-$65, 781-239-5880, www.commshakes.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin