London — Richard Eyre, one of Britain's top stage directors, has declared that ``the age of social realism'' in the theater is dead. Television, he said, has claimed that form for its own. Many British stage artists share this view. So it's not surprising that a recent spate of plays here are exercises in style over plot. Whether satiric, allegoric, metaphoric, or poetic, the trend in these works is toward stream-of-consciousness expression, not linear storytelling.
Most of these works have had little box office success. So it's something of an occasion when a play in this nouveau mold hits the jackpot.
``Serious Money,'' by Caryl Churchill (of ``Top Girls'' and ``Cloud Nine'' fame) is just such a work. Having originated at the Royal Court, London's most famous avant-garde playhouse, where it was scheduled for only a short run last spring, the show did so well that it has just transferred to the Wyndhams Theater in the West End. After that, it is said to be heading for New York.
The subject could not be more topical. ``Serious Money'' takes a satiric swipe at the seedy, greedy side of London's post-Big Bang world of high finance. After an opening comic sketch from a 17th-century play called ``The Volunteers or The Stockjobbers'' - a scene that underscores the timeless nature of stock-market chicanery - ``Serious Money'' switches to October 1986 on the frantic floor of LIFFE (the London International Financial Futures Exchange).
Skillfully directed by Royal Court artistic director Max Stafford-Clark, the play sustains an unrelenting pace of wheeling and insider-dealing. This frenetic style - with its overlapping dialogue set to an irregular mix of rhyme - is as much a part of the message as is the plot.
And that's a pity. Most critics have not been able to recount in any precise detail what the story is about. Yet, unlike some other shows of this ilk, there was at least some attempt at creating a story. Amid an endless stream of inside jargon (oik, oinkk, dinky, etc.), we learn that a yuppy LIFFE dealer, Scilla, has mysteriously lost her scheming commercial paper dealer brother, either by suicide or murder. Scilla provides virtually the only coherent thread of the play. She weaves in and out of the hubbub, seemingly in search of the answer to her brother's demise. Only at the end, when she follows her nose to the office of a shady American arbitrageur in Wall Street, do her real desires become known: She wants a piece of the action in what was her brother's international scam.
The show is filled with references to the Boesky and Guiness affairs, cocaine dealing, Thatcherite morality (as Churchill sees it), third-world debt, and Eurobonds. There are also two pulsating rock songs, one at the end of each act, which ``celebrate'' the 1980s' capitalist spirit.
``Serious Money'' is flawed, but not irredeemably so. Its energy, intermittent wit and hot-off-the-press immediacy make it, in a qualified sense, a good play. The shame is that, with more discipline (which today's trend does not encourage), it could have been an even better one.