Plenty of High Points in ‘Panic of ’29,’ Including the Intermission

While clever and often amusing, Graham Techler’s play is overlong and unwieldy.

Carol Rosegg
Olivia Puckett and Will Roland ‘The Panic of ’29.’ Carol Rosegg

“The Panic of ’29” must have seemed like a swell idea on paper, not to mention a topical one. With fears of another recession adding to a general sense of dread amid the threats of widening war and pandemic, what better time to send up the mother of all stock market crashes?

Perhaps, though, that’s where Graham Techler’s clever and often amusing but overlong and unwieldy play should have remained: on paper. The multi-faceted Mr. Techler, who is also an actor, has proven himself a deft satirist in sophisticated outlets like the New Yorker and McSweeney’s, crafting little gems with titles such as, “Mom, Dad: I’m a New Media Content Creator” and “I Know I Wasn’t Supposed to Tell Hannibal Lecter About My Personal Life, But I’m Not Used to Men Being Such Good Listeners.”   

The playwright’s capacity for raucous but pointed parody is evident in “Panic,” particularly the early scenes, which unspool with the feverish energy of a pulp magazine article sprung to life. One character, Jimmy Armstrong, writes for such a publication; played by a spry Will Roland, he’s just the sort of earnest, bespectacled young man who once represented reporters and scribes throughout filmdom, albeit with a splash of bohemian arrogance. “My stuff’s got themes,” Jimmy insists. “A lot of them.”  

On another end of the play’s social spectrum sits Richard Whitney, a financier who before leading the New York Stock Exchange was vice president at the time of the crash, and later served time for embezzlement. In “Panic,” this symbol of capitalist corruption re-emerges as an outsize buffoon, who at a recent preview was played to the hilt by a purposefully frenzied Erik Lochtefeld. (Brian Morabito has since assumed the part.) 

Boasting of his close relationship with President Hoover, Whitney points out in the first scene — as he will repeatedly: “Herb and I met while sharing a schvitz in Chuck Schwab’s sauna.” A moment later, the Wall Street honcho is assuring his underlings, “If we stay the course, no one ever needs to know that we don’t know what we’re doing.”

It doesn’t turn out that way, of course, and as fortunes plummet and New York City descends into chaos, Mr. Techler and director Max Friedman unveil a parade of droll caricatures, some of whom are very well played. Julia Knitel is a slinky standout as Lady Generosity, a cabaret singer whose glinty allure belies a sentimental nature; and Joyelle Nicole Johnson packs a wry punch as Eva, the woman who runs the speakeasy where Lady entertains with a velvet-gloved iron fist.

Yet the plot twists that carry these and other characters forward grow increasingly strained and tedious. As the Depression sets in, some become hobos and relocate to — wait for it — Hoboken, where an elusive cop killer embarks on a social justice campaign. The surviving principals eventually end up in Niagara Falls, where a trio of French ne’er-do-wells scheme to disrupt their fresh start as nuclear weapons threaten to disrupt the planet.

The various issues that Mr. Techler dangles and the connections he suggests might have been intriguing in another context. But over two acts that spanned about two and a half hours at the preview, including an intermission — 15 minutes have since been cut, mercifully — the laughs thin out and the transitions become more labored. The spare, artfully flimsy scenic design provided by Mr. Friedman clearly aims to enhance a Brechtian vibe, but the shuffling in the dark between scenes seems more amateur than epic.

I was much more impressed by a handful of piquant original songs, written by the playwright in the style of the era and wittily delivered by Ms. Knitel. Perhaps Mr. Techler should consider making his next theatrical outing a musical. I’d advise that he keep it a little shorter, though.

The New York Sun

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