Michael Larson achieved TV game-show infamy when he won $110,237 in a single appearance on “Press Your Luck” in 1984. A driftless scammer, Larson had obsessively studied the show and detected a pattern in how light traveled through the supposedly random boxes on a large board that promised cash, prizes and dreaded “whammies.” He had, in effect, learned how to beat the odds in a contest of Russian roulette.
Sandbox Theatre has taken on Larson’s saga in “Big Money,” a ensemble-devised work that opened Friday at Park Square Theatre’s Boss Stage in downtown St. Paul.
Larson’s story is fascinating in that slow-motion-car-wreck sort of way. Always looking for the unconventional angle, he was broke two years after his triumph. That he was robbed of $50,000 of his cash could be considered bad luck or stupidity. Who keeps that kind of money at home — in $1 bills?
His life unraveled, and he died a fugitive from justice for a subsequent con job. If you have 20 minutes to waste, the internet can fill you in on the pretty incredible details.
Sandbox never achieves the drama of Larson’s real life in “Big Money.” The staging is hamstrung between a faithful recitation of events (the game-show patter is verbatim) and Sandbox’s physical aesthetic. That style pushes us away from naturalism, yet it is not enough to expand or investigate the tragic myth.
The psychological character study — the essence of Larson’s story — never emerges. Only once, in a faux song-and-dance number about risk and reward, does the production free us from the flat and repetitious game of physical tics. We may not know what was going through Larson’s head most of the time, but the artist’s job is to take a stab at it.
“Big Money” feels like a missed opportunity in conception and execution. Company members Theo Langason and Derek Lee Miller are credited for direction and “project lead,” respectively. The narrative hews tightly to Larson’s life story, but it lacks the bite of incisive dialogue and imagination. Actor Peter Heeringa brings no particular insight into Larson.
Perhaps a camera and a strong point of view would let a movie nudge into Larson’s mind. On stage, Sandbox has not brought the magic of theater to bear on a bizarre and worthwhile subject.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.