by Michael Buzzelli
As the Emcee in “Cabaret” would gloriously remind you, “Money makes the world go around, The world go around. The world go around.” That’s the straight-up vibe you’ll get in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s ≈[Almost Equal To]. The key is almost.
There are a lot of “almosts” in ≈[Almost Equal To]. Mani (Julia Polisoto) is almost on the verge of becoming a full-time econ professor at an unnamed college. Andrej (Jonah Hartman) almost helps his family get out of a cycle of poverty (if they’re not poor, they’re lower middle class). Martina (Clark Eileen Atkinson) almost gets the family cottage, but loses it to her sister Angelika (Katherine Bruce). Peter (Logan Kearney) almost gets $50 from Ivan (Adrian Escalona).
The characters almost get what they want. All of them are depending on one big break, much like Martina’s convenience store customers who are buying scratch-offs.
If Trickle-Down Theory Economist Milton Friedman wrote an After-School Special, it would be ≈[Almost Equal To]. There’s a lesson in all of this madness.
Khemiri (through Rach Willson-Broyles’ translation) wants to teach us about money and how living without it can makes us dangerous creatures, causing us to steal, beg, borrow and, perhaps, inflict pain.
While the playwright posits some interesting scenarios while teaching us important lessons, it comes of as a little preachy. It also takes a while to get to the point. It does, however, makes some excellent points, and delivers it with humor and panache.
It’s the excellent acting makes this show.
Polisoto excels (“Excels” – a little spreadsheet humor) as Mani. Despite the ensemble nature of this show, Mani is the main character and Polisoto proves worthy of the distinction. That said, Atkinson, Hartman and Honsa get some terrific moments in the spotlight.
Atkinson is so incredibly likable, even when her character is behaving badly. When her character feels joy, it exudes out into the audience. Her stage presence is amazing.
Ironically, Peter, who says, “Hi, I’m Peter,” nearly as much as Groot says “I am Groot,” in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” in all of the Marvels, has the most depth of character. He is brilliantly played by Logan Kearney.
Sophie Honsa’s Intermission Speaker is full of charm and kindness, until she isn’t. The character takes a dark turn, and Honsa does it with such grace and wit, you almost don’t realize how awful her character is. A few minutes later, Honsa morphs into another character, Freja, and she’s almost unrecognizable. It’s a tour de force for the young actor.
There are plenty of skilled performers in this show, some in the front as leading characters, and some in the background. The ensemble is terrific. Charlie Kennedy shines in a tiny role as the Employment Agency Man, but also gets a lion’s share of laughs in some non-speaking roles.
The Liquor Store Employee (Maddie Cox) and the Job Coach (Madison Downing) garner some good laughs as well.
There’s a lot of cruelty in ≈[Almost Equal To]. Some of it is [almost] hard to watch, but director Adil Mansoor does a great job finding the inner beauty of this ugly beast.
There’s a layer of whimsy that Mansoor embraces that makes the show stand out. A lesson on the difference between one million, one billion and one trillion with falling Monopoly Money was particularly effective. When Casparus van Houten (Colin Villacorte) and Laura Lorenzo (Abbey Hannis) show up in the second act…well…let’s just say their fame as renown economists has…um…gone to their heads. It’s hilarious.
Fantastic scenic design by Toni Woods, making the most of the inner city rooftops. Natalie Rose Mabry’s projection design is wonderful highlight (figuratively and literally). Their fanciful video images enhance the production brining the audience into the moment.
≈[Almost Equal To] is broken up into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces don’t really click together until the end, but there are a few nice surprises. The fantastic acting will keep you engaged. The play leaves an indelible mark. It’s [almost] guaranteed that you will leave the theater talking.
“[Almost Equal To] runs from November 15 – 19, 2023 at the Highmark Theatre, 350 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.