Sandbox Theatre presses the right buttons in 'Big Money'

Matthew Glover

Matthew Glover

Filling his house with TVs and VCRs, Michael Larson obsessively watched the ’80s game show Press Your Luck and discovered that the supposedly random prize board behaved in predictable ways that could be exploited by a disciplined contestant. Larson talked his way onto the show in 1984, hiding what he knew, and pulled off the game-show equivalent of counting cards at blackjack.

Big Money

Park Square Theatre
$40-$60 (Wednesdays are pay-as-able).

Narrowly evading the game’s bank-busting “whammies,” Larson won $110,237, shattering the one-day record for game-show winnings. How he did it is a fascinating story (there’s an informative documentary you can find on YouTube), but in the new Big Money, Sandbox Theatre wisely focuses instead on why he did it. Who was this man, and how did his story end?

Not well, we discover, in a show that tracks the strange but true events of Larson’s life. The former ice cream man’s Press Your Luck triumph takes place at the end of the first act, giving the show a rise-and-fall trajectory as Larson later descends into scams that land him on the wrong side of the law.

Directed by Theo Langason with Derek Lee Miller as project lead (a role akin to playwright and dramaturg in Sandbox’s collaborative process), Big Money is a fun, poignant journey through a strange American life. Once again, Park Square’s Andy Boss Thrust Stage proves the perfect home for Sandbox’s physical, dance-influenced style.

First-act flashbacks show us how Larson (Peter Heeringa) got his start selling candy bars at school, then advanced to banking and insurance fraud. Later, his marriage frays and he’s left on his own to try one get-rich-quick scheme after another — having successfully beat the system once, Larson is convinced he can do it again.

The ensemble keeps the action flowing fluidly through one outrageous episode after another, while never losing sight of the human heart of this story. In a quiet moment, for example, Sarah Parker, playing Larson’s wife, explains how her character fell for this unlikely lover — how his energy and ambition were attractive, until they weren’t. The show ends with a fantasy return to the game-show format, starkly illustrating that Larson’s gift for strategy failed him when it came to his personal life.

While it’s a highly satisfying evening of theater, Big Money is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. If more individual bits succeeded as well as Derek Meyer’s amusingly indifferent radio DJ (presenter of yet another contest Larson tries to out-think) or Cortez Owens’ agent who flips his trench coat back so hard that it lands on top of his head, the show would rack up even bigger winnings.

As it is, Big Money makes for a fascinating journey that follows an American antihero all the way from glory to the grave — or, as Press Your Luck host Peter Tomarken put it, “the ultimate whammy.”

Big Money
Sandbox Theatre at Park Square Theatre
Historic Hamm Building,
20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul
651-291-7005; through January 28