Evan Whitfield (from left), Ben McFadden, Pankaj K Jha and Trick Danneker, in a scene from Book-It Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of “The Financial Lives of Poets,” which runs through June 30. Photo by Alan Alabastro
Evan Whitfield (from left), Ben McFadden, Pankaj K Jha and Trick Danneker, in a scene from Book-It Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of “The Financial Lives of Poets,” which runs through June 30. Photo by Alan Alabastro
Although it may be modern and fashionable to enjoy a cynical snort of laughter at the theater, a good, healthy belly laugh is generally more soul-satisfying.’ The Seattle Center-based Book-It Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of Spokane novelist Jess Walter’s “The Financial Lives of the Poets” provides many such opportunities with its laugh-out-loud tale of one man’s attempt to resolve his family’s financial woes.

Former business journalist Matt Prior (Evan Whitfield) decides to quit his job and follow his heart. Unfortunately, the world isn’t ready for an Internet site offering financial advice in verse. His poor business decision coincides with the Great Recession. Now Matt is unemployed and broke, a balloon mortgage payment looms, the credit cards are maxed out due to an Internet shopping spree by Matt’s luxury-loving wife Lisa (Jennifer Sue Johnson), the tuition is coming due at his sons’ Catholic school and, worst of all, Matt suspects Lisa of having an affair with dim-but-manly high school honey Chuck (Mike Mathieu).

During a late-night milk run to 7-Eleven, Matt meets a group of 20-something stoners who help him rediscover his younger self with no little inspiration from the marijuana they share with him; he resolves to end his financial woes by becoming a pot dealer to his 40-something corporate peers, taking advantage of their nostalgia for their college days.

Walter’s book places more emphasis on the cascading effects of the Great Recession than does the Book-It adaptation. Instead, adapter/director Myra Platt focuses on the comic aspects of Matt’s situation and indulges in a sort of advance nostalgia for illegal pot dealing as Washington state moves toward a legalized marijuana industry. The stage production successfully retains the novel’s more plaintive aspects, thanks especially to the highly sympathetic Whitfield’s skilled handling of Matt’s alternation between controlled panic and bemused self-deprecation.

Trick Danneker provides a contrast to Whitfield’s self-effacing Matt as his main pot connection, the surprisingly well-read and self-assured Jamie. Richard Nguyen Sloniker’s lawyer and would-be drug lord Dave skillfully alternates between menace and comic paranoia. Todd Jefferson Moore is hilarious as both Matt’s dementia-addled father, Jerry, and old-school business tycoon Earl Ruscom. Other cast notables include Johnson’s chirpy, selfish Lisa Prior, and Spike Huntington as Monte, the not-so-bright marijuana farmer.

The excellent ensemble includes a Greek chorus of gangbangers who rap poetry between scenes, Betsy Schwartz as Lisa’s swinging divorcee friend Dani and Cobey Mandarino as sleazy financial adviser Richard.

Whenever the action starts to slow, Platt grabs the remote to literally fast-forward, rewind or slo-mo the actors; Johnson particularly excels during these physical segments.
Peter Donnelly’s costume design incorporates a keen awareness of the current youthful attire (including tats). Andrea Bryn Bush cleverly employs video projections to display poetry and texted and/or e-mailed messages alongside the minimalist scenic design featuring the 7-Eleven logo in its due place of prominence.

“The Financial Lives of Poets” plays through June 30 at the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse (4045 University Way N.E.) in the University District. For more information, go to www.book-it.org.

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