OLD MONEY was written by Wendy Wasserstein, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning author of such plays as The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig and An American Daughter. In this play, Wasserstein used a style markedly different from her earlier works. Instead of telling the story as a linear narrative, she offered a time-jumping meditation on New York society, past and present. In the play, people from opposite ends of the 20th century gather for a party in an Upper East Side townhouse, at first unaware of each others' existence and then eventually they mingle and collide across the constraints of time. As their actions overlap and interweave, it provides an opportunity to explore the differences between 'old money' and 'new money' New York.
At the center of the story is a Columbia University history professor, Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer III, grandson of the townhouse's original owner. Now 75 years old and in failing health, Vivian (as he is known) has come to re-visit the house in which he lived during the first twelve years of his life. Vivian has been invited by Ovid Walpole Bernstein, the precocious 17-year-old son of Jeffrey Bernstein, a hedge-fund analyst who became extremely wealthy a few years before, when his investment banking firm went public. (Jeffrey is 'new money'.) The play takes place on a Saturday night in mid-August, and as one of the guests—the party impresario Flinty McGee—comments, it is very risky to hold a party in the city on a summer weekend when one's guests are more likely to be at their houses in the Hamptons, and yet "everybody" has shown up—a testament to Jeffrey's new fame and status. Among the partygoers are the Hollywood movie producer Sid Nercessian, his second wife Penny and Sid's teenage daughter Caroline, who has a thing for Ovid. Another guest is sculptor Saulina Webb, who is Jeffrey's disapproving ex-sister-in-law. As the party progresses, Vivian reminisces to Ovid and others about his family heritage. His memory refracts, time is unmoored and he is joined by his grandfather (and namesake) Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer—an 'old money' industrialist or a robber baron, depending on one's point of view. Pfeiffer welcomes guests at his own summer soiree, circa 1914, including the department store magnate Arnold Strauss; the grande dame of New York society Betina Brevoort; and the architect Schuyler Lynch, a leading practitioner of the Beaux Arts movement and the designer of the Pfeiffer townhouse.
In a satirical and witty style—which resonates with the writing of Edith Wharton, another great chronicler of New York—Wasserstein deftly observes how social conventions, professional eminence and familial relationships have remained remarkably similar throughout the last century.