Past portents of the far future can seem oracular when they hit or campy when they miss. But accurate or not, they can have lasting appeal. Imagining the near future, however, is a riskier gambit—flirting between sage social commentary and irrelevancy—and has a much shorter shelf life. For Felipe Ossa’s pre-crisis script for “Monetizing Emma,” set in the 2013 world of structured finance, the risk pays off, ripening nicely in the six years since it was penned.
Let me get this out of the way: some of the acting and stage directing are a bit amateurish, and some casting decisions are distracting. That said, Nitya Vidyasagar is excellent in the lead role, and both James Arden and Janice Mann turn in capable performances as co-villains. That’s all I can reliably say of the production itself, and so I’ll instead focus my attention on the play’s biggest draw, the script.
Mr. Ossa’s delightful premise imagines financial innovation run amok, where investment bankers have concocted a new security backed by shares of teenagers’ future lifetime earnings. Smarmy bankers (played by Arden and Mann) compete to identify the best “assets”—overachieving teenagers short on means but long on potential—and to sign them to a contract that will cede a portion of their future earnings to a securitization vehicle, in exchange for which they receive a handsome lump sum that more than finances their college tuition. Emma Dorfman (Vidyasagar) is one such overachiever, a top-of-her-class 15-year-old that the bankers see as a potential asset for their teen portfolio—that is, provided Emma can kick her Jane Austen obsession before she becomes (gasp!) an English major.
Mr. Ossa backs up his clever premise with witty and efficient writing, generously peppered with sneaky jokes calling on an eclectic range of reference material, not just structured finance geekery. His send-up of angsty Austen fandom is deft, and pop cultural and political references are slyly dropped into the dialog. So sneaky are the jokes, for example, that I only heard one audible guffaw (my own) at a slick and unexpected reference to a West African dictator. I found myself wishing this were the extent of the humor, however, as repeated attempts at slap-stick fell flat. And while the cast is slim at only six characters, the roles of Emma’s two bratty high-school tormentors—responsible for the least compelling moments of comic relief—could be pruned from the script without a loss.
Perhaps owing to when it was written, and to its credit, the play avoids overtly satirizing the perverse incentive structures of the securitization model. To do so would have been tedious and overreaching. Instead the commentary on finance and financiers is subtle yet effective, leaving room for a well crafted and entertaining plot. At its heart, “Monetizing Emma” is more caper than satire, but that’s no knock. Watching the swindles committed by too-clever-by-half bankers backfire can be just as much fun to watch on stage as it is in real life.