First, Urinetown—now a play about hedge funds!

First, Urinetown—now a play about hedge funds!

First, Urinetown—now a play about hedge funds!

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
June 14 2006 10:28 AM

First Urinetown. Now This?

The first play about hedge funds debuts in New York.

Burleigh Grime$. Click image to expand.
Wendie Malick

Hedge funds, those investment vehicles for institutions and the very wealthy that have enjoyed explosive growth in recent years, are breaking out into popular culture. Early this year came Hedgehogging, a tell-some memoir by veteran Wall Streeter Barton Biggs. At last week's Hedgestock in England, hedge-fund managers tried to let their hair down in a summer-of-love-style festival, complete with a concert by the Who.

And last night, a new play about hedge funds debuted off-Broadway. And, no, it's not Katz, or Greenwich Boys, or The Silk Pajama Game. It's Burleigh Grime$.

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The title character of the show, by Roger Kirby, with music by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), is named after a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher known for throwing legal spitballs. He is played by Mark Moses of Desperate Housewives, and he has two young acolytes, Buck and Hap—which is either an ironic riff on Biff and Happy from Death of a Salesman or a major-league coincidence.

Grimes is a font of scams and schemes: spiking fields in Burma with gold dust, dumping dead anchovies on beaches to generate an El Niño scare, and other much smaller cons. Grimes' main pipeline to profits is a long-standing relationship with financial reporter Elizabeth Bigley (played by sitcom veteran Wendie Malick, the lengthiest woman this side of the WNBA). He feeds her news and rumors and trades ahead of her daily reports. Enter George Radbourne (played by 24 alumnus James Badge Dale), a previously unambitious old-money type estranged from his father, Henry. For reasons that are unclear, Grimes has a vendetta against Henry, which he is somehow going to carry out by enlisting (or ruining) George. Then there's Grace—George's once-boho college sweetheart—who works as Bigley's ambitious assistant.

The show is a little hard to follow. Everyone has either screwed, is currently screwing, or wants to screw everybody else—financially and otherwise. But the cast is easy on the eyes, things move quickly, and there are a few chuckles scattered among the bromides that are supposed to be profoundly telling. Take this deep thought from Grimes: "There is no truth. Companies do what they want with the numbers."

The production is stylized—there's a shimmying secretary (who triples as a stripper and Grimes' trophy wife), and characters briefly tango during transitions. And the cursing. Oh, my f****** God, the cursing. The script contains so many F-bombs, David Mamet would blush.

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The best—and most accurate—moments come before the show starts. With the houselights still on, Hap and Buck are at the X-shaped trading turret. As they talk on multiple phones and type furiously, they down caffeine-laden drinks, throw objects and balls at one another, fart at each other, attempt to grope the assistant, and have a push-up contest. That's a pretty realistic encapsulation of a 10-hour day on the trading floor.

Of course, making a compelling drama/comedy out of the lives of hedge-fund managers was always going to be a difficult task. Hedgies are objects of great interest, largely because of their compensation and the assets they control. But by and large, they're hardworking numbers adepts—you have to get up very early in the morning if you want to beat the market—who lead a pretty tenuous life. One bad year, and the trading turrets go dark.

Burleigh Grime$ is clearly trying to be of the moment. As is the current vogue, the band is on the two-tiered stage—two hard-driving sets of drummers on top, flanking the TV studio from which Elizabeth Bigley reports. And there are scripted video cameos starring James Cramer, the current King of All Financial Media.

Yet the show is a bit dated. Grimes wears a suit, suspenders, a red tie, a shirt with a white collar—the uniform circa 1986. And a lot of the financial talk is random, as if someone fed items from the Wall Street Journal into a computer program and it spat stuff back out. Such lag and oversimplification always happen when the popular-culture machine tries to process financial high jinks. Wall Streetcame out in 1987, just in time for the crash. Other People's Money, an off-Broadway play in 1989, was made into a movie in 1991, just as the recession was starting. And by the time the film version of Barbarians at the Gate,that fine postmortem on the 1980s,came out in 1993, the new bull market was already starting. So, it's no surprise that the Burleigh Grime$ premiere comes when commentators are discussing the prospect of some hedge funds having to liquidate amid the recent market turmoil.

The New York theater scene, today, as always, is banking on nostalgia. There's early '60s nostalgia ( Jersey Boys), mid-'80s nostalgia ( The Wedding Singer) and early '90s nostalgia ( Rent). So, the modus operandi of Grimes and Bigley is very 1990s. Sure, there are plenty of traders who try to manufacture buzz and trade off it. But today's hedge-fund big shots play a deeper game. The trading strategies of the biggest funds are fueled by proprietary algorithms. And the real big shots, like Eddie Lampert and Carl Icahn, are seeking profits by bidding for control of entire companies and getting involved in corporate governance. Besides, you couldn't imagine trying to move a stock by getting a hot CNBC reporter to mention it—nobody really watches anymore.

So, a little sex, a lot of compromised and corrupt professionals, and an abrupt and confusing ending. Yep, it's a lot like the late 1990s.