The Wolf of Wall Street Gets Woke and All I Got Was a Sticker
(Bloomberg) -- Jordan Belfort puts his hand on my shoulder. His eyes are wild. He’s wearing cocaine like cologne.
“Do we have an understanding?” he asks me.
This is the man who gave himself the name Wolf of Wall Street. Actually, it’s an actor playing him (Oliver Tilney in Leo DiCaprio’s screen role). We’re in the middle of what’s called immersive theater. So I’m immersing.
I get that Belfort/Tilney doesn’t want me to rat him out, but I don’t know which debauchery he has in mind -- the money or the drugs -- or what relatively responsible adult I shouldn’t be ratting to -- his wife or an FBI agent. It all seems plausible, like the pump-and-dump stock schemes that made the real-life Belfort infamous enough for Martin Scorsese to do a film about him.
Belfort/Tilney repeats the question. “Do we have an understanding?”
“Yes,” I tell him. “We do.”
I’m not sure I fully understand our understanding, but in immersive theater, like at Stratton Oakmont, Belfort’s erstwhile firm -- where an excess of excess was expected from employees -- you don’t get far saying no.
It’s make-believe, yet the reactions it evokes can be refreshingly real. The team behind the theater experience of “The Great Gatsby” has given the same treatment to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Belfort’s titillating memoir.
On a recent Wednesday evening, 100 of us, maybe more, move through 24 rooms on four floors of an otherwise empty building near actual City of London bank offices. Among the performance areas are a posh bar that sells real drinks, a bedroom, a swimming pool and a police interrogation room. There’s too much going on for audience members to experience everything. But who doesn’t want to see the trading floor, where we can experience the thrill of tearing the faces off people who’ve made the idiot mistake of trusting us?
Luckily, it’s new-issue day. Stratton Oakmont is handling the initial public offering of Steve Madden shares, and the Wolf needs it to be a big success.
Belfort’s sidekick, Danny Porush (played by Jonah Hill in the movie and James Bryant here), whips the sales team and the audience into a frenzy. He has us chant Belfort’s name, starting with a whisper (“Make it sexy,” he commands) and building up. By the time Belfort takes the floor we’re at fever pitch, in a genuinely cathartic moment that for me was the high point of the show.
Paper currency flutters in the air. The lighting turns hallucinatory red. Belfort is ranting about how an employee’s kids won’t have to go into debt to finish college. Perhaps it was Danny’s warm-up, or the many young people in the audience, but the speech resonates.
That’s not always the case in this often frantic show.
The story unfolds in various parts of the building at the same time. Actors randomly divide the audience into different “tracks.” So while I enjoy Stratton Oakmont, others are trying to crack the case for the FBI. That structure means a lot of time thinking I might be missing something and scenes with lesser characters that drag.
But there’s magic on the trading floor. Belfort makes Gordon Gekko sound like Greta Thunberg. His pronouncement: “There. Is. No! Nobility! In! Poverty!”
Upon hearing this, at least two audience members gasp. Their reaction is indicative of the increasingly sorry state of depravity since Belfort’s 2007 memoir and Scorsese’s 2013 film.
Licentiousness is less hip today. Many still practice it, of course, and some always will. But a bit of the gusto is gone. Growing wealth inequality makes the mantra that life is better with a Lambo-load of money seem brutal now. #MeToo has rendered whole chunks of Belfort’s story cringe-worthy.
The production has responded. Women’s roles are beefed up. The movie’s nudity is gone. The crazier office behavior has been cut. (Employees don’t play catch with small humans, for one.)
Simulating the various drug-fueled benders proves tricky, though it can be fun. Danny in his underwear rapping over Whitney Houston’s “My Love is Your Love” is surreal but brilliant, and another Danny escapade -- delivering $1 million to a Belfort friend while he’s wasted -- made me laugh out loud.
There also remains an unparalleled level of profanity (the movie set a Hollywood record for use of the F-word) and plenty of crudity and shouting. Apparently, thumping your chest while making an ape sound was a big part of life at Stratton Oakmont.
Soon after my “understanding” with Belfort, I move to get a better view. I wind up on another track in a different part of the narrative. What the heck, I think. Danny is here so it’s probably the place to be. They’ve drawn his character directly from the movie version of Porush (named Donnie Azoff on screen), which reportedly was a less-than-accurate portrayal. But at this point, who cares? He’s hilarious. When it comes to the legend of Belfort, who made a fortune spinning lies and who some accuse of adopting the nickname just for his book, insisting on truth seems silly.
Yet, this wolf feels de-fanged. Whatever Stratton Oakmont was, I doubt it had gender-neutral bathrooms. I don’t think they handed out stickers (yes, I got one). But it’s 2019, the wolf is woke, and this production might be as wolfish as we’re going to get.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.