Emcee Mick O’Brien (right) works the concession table with Corinne Woods (left) in 'Money Lab.' (all photos by Arthur Cornelius, courtesy HERE Arts Center)

MC Mick O’Brien (right) works the concession table with Corinne Woods (left) in ‘Money Lab.’ (all photos by Arthur Cornelius, courtesy HERE Arts Center)

Money Lab is a show about money. When you arrive at the theater, you have to buy chips — a few red chips, a few blue chips — and during the show, you’re supposed to use these chips to buy things. Red chips represent necessities (food, clothing), blue chips represent luxuries (flowers, art), and two flat screens display color-coded numbers and graphs indicating the relative strength of the currencies as they fluctuate over the evening. There’s a bank, where you can buy more chips or convert currency. There’s also a store, where you can buy food, drink, books by the director (Edward Einhorn), and “flying Marx” shot glasses. I bought a copy of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata for 30 blue chips, or about $15, early in the evening; I don’t know if I got it for a good price, nor do I particularly care.

Produced by Untitled Theater Company No. 61 — according to the playbill, “a Theater of Ideas: scientific, political, philosophical, and above all theatrical” — Money Lab explores economic ideas by turning HERE Arts Center’s tiny theater into a slightly deviant Econ 101 classroom. Group exercises demonstrate “standard economic behavioral games (measuring our natural altruistic instincts and the economic value of spite, respectively)” (playbill again). The MC, Mick O’Brien, led the exercises and dictated the rhythm of the show. He was friendly but remote in a professorial sort of way that would have been pleasant in a classroom but didn’t generate much drama.

Jenny Lee Mitchell in “Love und Greed,” part of ‘Money Lab’

Between the games were several vaudevillian variety acts, all having something to do with money. A director’s note explains that each performer is receiving $50/performance (“It’s not much. But it’s what we can afford. Honestly, it’s more than we can afford … ”), and while the performances felt more valuable than that, I was never moved to throw my wallet onstage in gratitude. Avner Finberg sang three of Marx’s letters to Engels (asking for money); Mad Jenny (Jenny Lee Mitchell) und Ensemble did a Weimar cabaret piece called “Love und Greed”; and director Edward Einhorn’s “The Money Atheist,” a monologue by a character (played by Moira Stone) who finds money bizarre, incomprehensible, and unusable, concluded the evening on an estranging but hardly revelatory note. It’s a different set of acts each night of the three-week run, which might explain why things hung together so loosely.

Jonathan Kline as Karl Marx in “Letters to Engels,” part of ‘Money Lab’ (click to enlarge)

So much depends upon audience participation that the Money Lab experience will vary greatly from night to night. On opening night, the game that generated the most intense participation was an auction for a jar of quarters. There was also an auction to fund an artist (one of the musicians in the show), but the audience proved much more excited about the quarters than the artist. We waged a bidding war over a small glass jar full of coins, and we all but ignored the creative potential of a jazz bass player, a healthy young human with a charming smile, even after Edward Einhorn offered to match the bass player’s patron’s bid. My friends and I felt massive guilt about this afterwards, when we were talking about the show and realized the irony of what had happened. Had the MC made us more aware of this shameful irony in real time — had he berated us for being the selfish, shortsighted, shiny object–obsessed indie theatergoers we proved to be — the show might’ve achieved a climax. But he never said anything about it.

Money Lab continues at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Avenue, West Village, Manhattan) through April 11.

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Samuel Cooper

Samuel Cooper is a writer and freelance mathematician. He tweets.