Great actors make great villains in Central Works’ ‘Boss McGreedy’

Michael Ray Wisely is terrific in the title role of Central Works’ latest premiere, “Boss McGreedy.” (Courtesy Robbie Sweeny)

Central Works, the small company that consistently produces new plays in its delectable little space in the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club, couldn’t have chosen a better three-person ensemble for company co-director Gary Graves’ latest, “Boss McGreedy.” 

Set in 1876, the play—the company’s 73rd (and counting) world premiere—is billed as a comedy but is actually more accurately a melodrama. We get to, in our minds anyway, hiss the villain (the unrepentant title character), cheer on the attorney general’s special counsel who’s out to nail him and feel a certain sympathy for the poor schlub caught in the middle. 

But it’s the actors, under the playwright’s astute direction, who make the work (if not the villain) sing.

For example, early on, Michael Ray Wisely, as the self-declared boss of New York City, in prison (for fraud and corruption) on an island in the East River, shouting and stomping around ferociously, seems to have taken a page from the Donald Trump playbook. But he equally, at moments, calls to mind King Lear raging at the storm. This actor can do anything. 

So too can Brian Herndon, completely convincing not only as McGreedy’s anxious, intimidated lawyer but also later as a boatman rowing the fugitive across the ocean to Cuba after his daring prison breakout and later still as a cheerful, crafty Irishman who may or may not help the jailbird on his continuing escape route. 

And Anna Ishida, a master of the smoldering, deadpan face, is a terrific choice for lawyer O’Brian Bryant, who’s obsessed with bringing the completely amoral, self-aggrandizing McGreedy to his knees (and getting him transferred to the “tomb,” as the prison’s unspeakably horrific lower-level cells are called).

Most playwrights aim for the main character, if not several characters, to undergo a transformation. But here, Graves aims for no such thing. The pleasure in the show is to see just how far down this iconic villain can fall. 

Throughout, and in several different minimalist settings, Graves has come up with plenty of ways for McGreedy—who boasts, “Me and my guys built New York!”—to sink lower and lower, both emotionally and physically. 

And along the way, as Bryant pursues McGreedy with all the unrelenting fervor of a Javert, and as McGreedy’s spineless lawyer is forced to face his own culpability, Graves dresses up the story with a few semi-surreal touches, which seem to represent McGreedy’s increasingly deteriorating sense of reality. Low-key sound effects (designed by Gregory Scharpen) and Tammy Berlin’s excellent, period-perfect costumes handily substitute for a set in this small space. 

Although Graves has built various twists and turns into the plot—is McGreedy a murderer as well as a corrupt bastard who has stolen millions from the city and its people?—the story itself doesn’t much matter. Nor does it matter that it doesn’t generate much laughter. However, carefully plotted though it is, at 90 minutes, it’s too long, the dialogue at times clever but ultimately repetitive, the main character too monochromatically evil, to allow for depth or nuance. Only the sleazy lawyer gets a chance at personal revelation or character development. 

Yet there’s a vicarious thrill in seeing McGreedy get his comeuppance, scene by scene, and pure joy in watching fine actors at their best. 

Central Works’ “Boss McGreedy” continues through March 31 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Tickets run from “pay what you can” on Thursdays to $45. Visit

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