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'Money Lab': Economics as Art and Play

Untitled Theater Company No. 61 creates an economic vaudeville where you can be the star.

Photos by Arthur Cornelius

Have you ever been to a theatrical performance where you could walk in with a ticket and walk out with cash? That's the setup of Untitled Theater Company No. 61's Money Lab, a show that is more game than theater and where the only limits are your own imagination. If there was ever a play designed to shake up the complacent New York theatergoing audience, it's this one.

Money Lab, conceived and curated by Edward Einhorn, is an "economic vaudeville" featuring a rotating selection of four short performances that run the gamut from cabaret and magic show to physical theater and more. But in between those miniature performances, another drama is going on, where audience members can bid in auctions, play the game's "stock market" by exchanging the two kinds of currency and even sabotage other players if you so choose. So how devilish can supporters of the arts be when it comes to cash?

Of course, you are welcome to bid on nothing and get all of the money you spent on tokens back in the end, if you so choose. But it's far more fun if you jump right in, and an enthusiastic audience will make Money Lab soar as much as a hesitant one will leave it to fall flat (though you will have the benefit of lowering the market value of the auction items in the process). And this game is no charade, following actual economic principles and dependent on the behavior of the audience throughout the show, so the more you understand about speculation and why prices rise and fall, the more you will enjoy.

As for the actual vaudeville pieces? "Love Und Greed," an interwar Germany-style cabaret act, features original songs such as "Life's a Swindle" and "Here's to the A List" performed by the talented Jenny Lee Mitchell as she transforms through a clever repertoire of costumes and bilingual vocals. While a solid musical act, the German does feel like a distraction, and the three-song set only scratches the surface of what the band could be capable of. Russ Roberts' "Adam Smith" is one man's ode to the beauty of the free market and its unlimited supply of bread, but reads more like an acting exercise than a true performance.

"Magic Brian" is a tricky, understated magic act that turns into a quest for one audience member to win $100—but only if they can outwit the magician. But perhaps the best act of the evening was the one that didn't even include live actors onstage at all. "Journey to Yap" is an engrossing, thought-provoking multimedia experience about what wealth really means and what you might choose to do with it.

But really, the most entertaining bits of theater are what the audience creates for itself. From the rivalries that pop up between two audience members as they fight to make the other lose more money during an auction to the potential to win an hour's worth of creative work from one of the evening's performers (in this case trombonist Ric Becker of Postmodern Jukebox fame), Sunday evening's performance had its share of amusing moments. And any other show could be completely different, from the vaudeville acts to how the audience plays the game.

Under the tutelage of host Mick O'Brien, you too can learn to be a Wall Street Tycoon--with a maximum payout of $25, that is. It's an odd combination, merging theater and economics, but Money Lab manages to make their intersection make sense. If art is as necessary to life as money, then what choices do we make when creativity is at stake?

Money Lab plays at HERE through April 11.

This article was previously published on


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