Friday, April 10, 2009

Chasing Manet


By Tina Howe. Directed by Michael Wilson. 59E59. (CLOSED)

A few critics enjoyed Tina Howe's play about two dissimilar elderly women plotting an escape from their nursing home to Paris, but most found it to be a lesser version of her other works. Critics are also divided on the merits of Michael Wilson's direction. The highlights of the play, even for the naysayers, are Jane Alexander's performance as the angrier and more together of the two women, and a monologue (performed by David Margulies) considered by most critics to be much more poetic than anything else in the play.

Back Stage A-
(David Sheward) Yes, the plot is implausible, ridiculous, and even sitcom-level simple. Yet Howe endows this corny premise with a poetic beauty as images both absurd and dazzling cascade from the dialogue. In one masterful example, Howe constructs a long scene of fascinating contrasts. Rennie's large family is visiting. Catherine suddenly opens up and explains the importance of her favorite painting, Manet's Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe, which hangs over her bed. After her erudite and passionate lecture, the Waltzers enthuse over a nephew's TV commercial for a furrier featuring minks riding in a Viennese gondola to the accompaniment of Vivaldi's Gloria. The painting and the kitschy ad both have meaning to those describing them, and Howe treats each with humor and respect.

(David Cote) We have a couple of weeks before the opening of the Roundabout's Waiting for Godot, but if you want to see a more intimate Godot-inflected new play—with women, no less—you could try Tina Howe's nursing-home fantasia Chasing Manet. It's far less bitter and bleak, but there's a strain of existential dread running through the old-ladies-talking-dirty shtick. Irresistible alternative title: Waiting for Geritol.

American Theater Web B+
(Andy Propst) If it sounds like "Manet" might be a bit like a distaff, gray-haired take on Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," it is. But only on some levels. At its core, though, "Manet" is richer than Simon's legendary comedy and examines how people, and Catherine in particular, shape their own destinies and particularly as they face their mortality... For all of its successes, though, "Manet" does feel as if it could benefit from an even more heightened production from director Michael Wilson. His staging feels almost too reserved, and thus, Rennie's bizarre, almost absurdist, malapropisms – delivered capably by the winning Cohen – sometimes feel overly cute or worse as if they are cruelly making fun of the woman's illness, rather than being a natural part of this piece that dares to look at the process of aging and death with simultaneous clear sightedness, gentle bemusement and a healthy dose of surrealist whimsy.

DC Theatre Scene B+
(Richard Seff) Staged by Michael Wilson (who last season guided Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate at this same theatre, and later on Broadway), the play concludes on a rather false note, tidying everything up and delivering a socko happy ending. It does send the audience out in a cheery mood, but I thought the play deserved something more believable, more rueful. Ms. Howe knows her characters; one suspects she’s experienced the nursing home scene first hand, and there aren’t many neatly happy endings in them. But for them as likes excellent dialogue, an interesting and topical theme, two star turns, magical acting and a crackerjack production, I suggest you join Alexander and Cohen in their pursuit of happiness.

CurtainUp B-
(Elyse Sommer) Naturally, it takes a capable cast, especially for the Catherine Sargent role, to give Howe's mix of stark reality and quirky fantasy a chance to work. Fortunately Jane Alexander, seen all too rarely on the New York stage these, is on hand as the lead. While she's 69 and looks younger, Alexander manages to be reasonably convincing as a woman in her eighties and be the seething cauldron of anger, despair, wry humor and determination the script calls for. As her roommate and fellow conspirator, Lynn Cohen, is quite touching as the cheery, out of her mind Rennie but the script over-milks her dementia prompted lunacy in order to ramp up the laughs and improbability of this getaway actually succeeding. Director Michael Wilson firmly and seamlessly steers the four excellent members of the support cast through some twenty roles. Julie Halston transitions between a nutty Mount Airy resident and Rennie's devoted and daughter. Jack Gilpin morphs from Catherine's well-intentioned, poetry reciting son to a wheelchair-bound dirty old man. Vanessa Aspillaga and Bob Riley play two attendants as well as others, including Waltzer family members; and the always reliable David Margulies does his best to individualize his share of the multiple assignments.

Associated Press B-
(Jennifer Farrar) The play has boisterous moments, and witty dialogue, although the first act, which ends with some characters weeping inconsolably, is also frank and darkly realistic as to the limits of Catherine and Rennie's capabilities. Then Act 2 inexplicably becomes an often-farcical sequence of improbable events. It's hard to reconcile the two parts. Howe's concept may be unclear, but the wit of her writing, strong performances and the persistence of the human spirit are all admirably on display here. C+
(Robin Rothstein) Chasing Manet has an inspirational message at its core concerning the potential that lives in us all, no matter what the barriers, to defy expectations and take action to attain our dreams. Unfortunately, though, Howe spends more time weighing the play down in tired jokes and overly-superficial depictions associated with nursing home life at the expense of forwarding the central action. Act Two holds more dramatic tension and original juicy fun as the escape plan moves more front and center. This is also when the play reaches its comedic potential and the essence of its theme is more consistently and effectively articulated. Howe does a nice job keeping you guessing about whether or not the QE2 reservations are, in fact, real, and if the two women will be able to conjure up, and successfully execute, a viable escape plan. The results are a true surprise. Criticisms aside, what is clear throughout is that Howe has written Chasing Manet with relish, allowing herself to just have a good ol' time.

Bloomberg News
(John Simon) With “Chasing Manet,” Howe bites off too much, leaving everything a bit pallidly foreshortened, not to say etiolated. Moreover, Rennie is far too inconsistent to be credible: jocular when the play wants a lovable zany, sober enough when Catherine’s plotted escape to Paris and the world of her beloved Manet requires a racy co-conspirator. But that is not to fault the savvy director, Michael Wilson. Nor Alexander, a wonderfully aristocratic Catherine and Cohen, a vivaciously gemutlich Rennie. They act up merry minor storms amid artificially breezy doldrums.

Village Voice C
(Michael Feingold) Cohen is delightful and the supporting cast enchanting whenever Howe's lunatic verbal reveries take over; Alexander, a total class act, takes resplendent histrionic advantage of both reality and wordplay, but even she can't sustain two full acts of their unwieldy mixture.

Lighting & Sound America C-
(David Barbour) Howe is certainly capable of striking effects. It's easy to be amused by Catherine's bizarre appearance at an art class -- wearing painted sunglasses and fake spots of blood on her face, pretending to be Oedipus -- even as you wonder how she pulled off the gag in her invalid state. Alternatively, there times when the action freezes into a tableau of chaos, riven by the cacophonous cries of needy, confused old people. And there's a quietly beautiful sequence in a physical therapy class when an elderly man, heretofore lost in his own world, rouses himself to describe, in vivid detail, his work on an archeological dig. But Chasing Manet never settles on a point of view, preferring to leap from situation comedy gagging to Beckettian melancholy to wounding family confrontations in such a jittery manner that it's impossible to settle in and enjoy Howe's writing. The tone is sweet and sour, fierce and fey, pitiless in its assessment of the losses imposed by age and yet farcical and flighty. This isn't entirely surprising -- Howe has been pursuing her own specialized form of absurdism for decades -- but here it comes across as a kind of attention deficit disorder; the author's restlessness keeps us from getting caught up in her story.

The New York Times C-
(Ben Brantley) Like many of Ms. Howe’s plays, “Chasing Manet” celebrates human (and particularly female) eccentricity and willfulness, even in the shadow of death. But the quirks assigned to the characters here all feel preowned (as the car vendors say), as does the gimmick-driven plot. But you decide. You can determine whether “Chasing Manet” is your kind of play from a single-sentence synopsis, the kind script writers pitch to studio executives: Two ladies in a nursing home — one Jewish, one high WASP; one in a wheelchair, the other legally blind — come up with the idea of combining their resources and running away to Paris on the QE2. Still with me? I wish I could report that “Chasing Manet” is much more than my studio sales pitch. This production, directed by Michael Wilson and also starring Lynn Cohen, does occasionally stick its toes into the dark and icy waters of what it means to feel old and abandoned. But more often it just glides across the surface, trailing a twinkly string of cultural references and slender psychological insights.

New York Post D+
(Frank Scheck) The malapropism-prone Rennie suggests a plan: "We create a division -- then we make a break for it while everyone's distilled." And so goes most of the humor in an evening that alternately depicts the home's elderly as horrifically addled and comically wacky. It's the kind of play designed to appeal to those who find the phrase "stool softener" hilarious. To be fair, there are moments in which "Chasing Manet" reaches the lyrical beauty to which it aspires. These occur when Howe allows her characters to reveal their humanity -- when Catherine tells the fascinating backstory of Manet's famed painting "Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe," and when another resident (David Margulies) snaps out of his fogginess just long enough to passionately describe his experiences as an archaeologist working in the Fertile Crescent.

The Daily News D
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The show's pleasures come from the fine cast. Vanessa Aspillaga, Julie Halston, David Margulies and Rob Riley do double duty as Rennie's relatives and nursing home residents. Cohen, in wig and florals that scream Sophia from "The Golden Girls," is appealingly batty as a woman who blinks in and out of lucidity. Hopefully, the actress known as Miranda's housekeeper on "Sex and the City" goes to some far-off mental state when Rennie mentions "stool softener" (ugh) and feigns sexual arousal in her wheelchair (double ugh). The always classy Alexander has a distinguished career that stretches from stage and film to the NEA. She's perfectly cast as a woman of distinction who's feisty to the end, but even with her best efforts, "Chasing Manet" is a trivial pursuit.

Theatermania D-
(Patrick Lee) Howe hasn't done enough on the page to depict a growing fondness between the two women, so the actresses can hardly be faulted that it doesn't get adequately communicated and that their relationship remains hard to believe in and root for. Still, by giving her just the right amount of impatience and a touch of grandeur, Alexander makes Catherine entirely believable as a once-celebrated artist whose confinement has darkened her spirit. The character can be cold and rough, and her nasty candor is the only thing in the play that gives it some friction, but Alexander doesn't turn her into a one-dimensional bitter old biddie. Cohen, in the far more static role of Rennie, isn't given the chance to find as many layers. Michael Wilson's staging sometimes seems limited by Tony Straiges' set design, essentially three neutral tan walls of Catherine and Rennie's furnished room set back to clear two areas, one downstage and one along stage right, to serve undressed as all else. Wheelchairs are suspended overhead for no discernible reason. A twice-used sound effect of crashing wheelchairs is poorly executed.

Variety F+
(Sam Thielman) Tina Howe's "Chasing Manet" almost makes you envy its mentally ill characters the good fortune of not knowing where they are. Everyone else in the theater is aware they're watching a bad example of the nursing home drama -- a genre that, by definition, does not have much life left in it. With the exception of one interesting monologue, beautifully delivered by David Margulies, the play falls flat, cut off at the knees by embarrassingly sketchy characterizations and Michael Wilson's tone-deaf direction.

Talk Entertainment F+
(Oscar E Moore) In Tina Howe’s very slight, nursing home escapism epic, Chasing Manet, which is now playing at Primary Stages, we are supposed to suspend our belief of real people doing real things. These characters are not real. They are allegorical figures – representing the idea of escaping – the idea that if you want to get out of any said situation there is a means and that you should go for it as life is all too short, especially if you are in a nursing home where old people are sent to die. Anyone who has had anyone close who has had to be admitted into a nursing home will find this play to be totally implausible.

Offoffonline F
(Edward Karam) Howe’s plot and tone combine and The Golden Girls, with Cohen playing a role akin to the dotty Sophia in that sitcom, and Catherine as an acid Beatrice Arthur. Rennie is full of malapropisms—“division” for “diversion,” “pottery” for “poetry”—and she grins and goes off on loopy outbursts. Nevertheless, Catherine hatches a plan with Rennie to escape. They’re going to “chase Manet,” as it were—to do their own thing and head for Paris. One is supposed to cheer their indomitable spirits, but it’s hard when the drama is so contrived. Then, too, Howe indulges in the facile comic maneuver of having old people swear like today’s teenagers to get a laugh. Catherine calls a “Bronx cheer” vulgar, but moments later is dropping the F-bomb on poor Royal. Catherine rhapsodizes about being caught by her ex-husband in flagrante delicto with a younger art student—classy, isn’t that? And Catherine is also cruel. “Beauty was never your strong suit,” she tells Royal, in one of her offhand observations. By the time Howe has the two senior citizens singing an anthem to stool softener, you’ll be itching for social services to close down this institution.

Talkin' Broadway F
(Matthew Murray) Howe undoubtedly intended the play to be a loving tribute to the smile-worthy whims of the aged, to prove that the vivacity, resourcefulness, and world-changing bravura Manet captured in his scandalous 1863 “Luncheon on the Grass” - which depicts a nude woman seated in a park with two fully clothed men, and a copy of which holds pride of place above Catherine’s bed - need not be confined strictly to the young. But the overall effect is one that’s far less inspirational than it is crass, grating, and downright mean-spirited. Aspillaga’s and Riley’s characters are rampantly indifferent, the assorted seniors are more like on-the-lam Bellevue inmates than fading octogenarians, and Catherine is so bitchy and Rennie so one-note annoying that they don’t ease the absorption of all the snivelingly facile characterizations and story half-twists. The use of too-young and too-vibrant actors as Catherine and Rennie’s demented floormates is always belittling and usually insulting... If not for Alexander, there would be nothing appealing about this show. But, unlike everyone else onstage, she does occasionally evince vague hints of maturity, and brings a focused intelligence and lets you observe the faint wisps of torment that drive Catherine.

Back Stage A- 13; TONY B+ 11; American Theater Web B+ 11; DC Theatre Scene B+ 11; CurtainUp B- 9; Associated Press B- 9; C+ 8; Bloomberg News C+ 8; Village Voice C 7; Lighting & Sound America C- 6; The New York Times C- 6; New York Post D+ 5; The Daily News D 4; Theatermania D- 3; Variety F+ 2; Talk Entertainment F+ 2; Offoffonline F 1; Talkin' Broadway F 1; TOTAL: 117/18 = 6.5 (C/C-)

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