Bad Penny

Is Mac Wellman’s 1990 Obie winner a walk in the park, or a perfect catastrophe?

By Andrew Andrews

Joseph Huffman, Emma Orme, Bailie de Lacy and Lambert Tamin criticize each other in the Flea Theater's park-like Pete Courtyard. Original photo by Allison Stock.

Imagine you’re sitting in the park—any New York City park will do—and the person next to you starts speaking out loud to nobody in particular: a sort of poetic monologue, hinting at Shakespeare. Then you realize, they’re actually speaking to someone across the way, someone they don’t know. And before you know it, someone further down joins the conversation, the way New Yorkers are apt to do. Then another. And another. Then you realize, they’re not so much speaking to each other, but at each other. And they’re not so much speaking… it’s more like shouting.

“Oh no,” you think to yourself, “these people are batshit.” And as much as you want to leave before you become a target, the drama of it all compels you to stay.

If you’ve lived here for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered a situation like this at least once or twice: the kind of scenario that makes you want to change which subway car you’re in or just keep walking, until you reach a safe enough distance to pull out your phone to upload video of the event to social media.

This site-specific piece, created three decades ago for the Bow Bridge in Central Park, has been relocated to the Flea Theater’s outdoor courtyard for this year’s Mac Wellman Perfect Catastrophes Festival of Plays. The wonderfully creative, park-like setting provides an immersive experience, with the audience scattered around park benches, picnic blankets and café tables, and you don’t know who’s in the cast until they start speaking.

Everything in this production feels spot-on, from the casting to the costumes, from the lighting to the direction, delivering one of those “only in New York” moments until it all gets delightfully weird, with the foreshadowed Boatman appearing like a Sleestak from the original Land of the Lost. Which means that, despite its rather benign opening, Bad Penny slowly morphs into the kind of production you’d expect to find among the endeavors at LaMama or uptown at New Stage.

If there’s one thing I normally don’t like about Wellman’s work, it’s his tendency to have everyone speaking at once, making it frustrating to decide whom to listen to, until you realize it’s all just Dada. This, however, is the perfect setting for such verbal mayhem, creating a weird kind of anxiety as you try to figure out who is stable and what these people might do to each other.

I won’t pretend that audiences in general will appreciate the production, but if you’re the kind of person who loves experimental theatre as long as it’s done right, the resident Bats’ performance of Bad Penny is as enjoyable as it gets.


Andrew Andrews attended Bad Penny at The Flea Theater Pete Courtyard in Manhattan on Thursday, August 29, 2019 @ 7:00pm to write this review.