Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Golden Oldies

Chasing Manet
Written by Tina Howe
Directed by Michael Wilson
Starring Jane Alexander, Vanessa Aspillaga, Lynn Cohen, Jack Gilpin, Julie Halston, David Margulies, Robert Christopher Riley

Performances from March 24-May 2, 2009
Primary Stages
59 E 59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street

Cohen and Alexander in
Chasing Manet
(photo: James Leynse)
In Tina Howe’s comedy Chasing Manet, octogenarian roommates plot to escape from a Bronx nursing home. The 87-year-old painter Catherine Sargent (lucid and sardonically intelligent) and 84-year-old, arthritic Rennie Waltzer (still grieving her husband’s death several years earlier) seem an intriguing enough pair to follow for two hours, except their creator constantly undercuts them by focusing on too many peripheral characters like family members, workers at the Mount Airy facility and other patients.

Howe’s best works—Coastal Disturbances, Painting Churches and Pride’s Crossing—inventively combine comedy and tragedy, without ever losing focus on their main characters, who are shown warts and all. Although Chasing Manet paints sympathetic portraits of its protagonists, there’s so much else going on it’s as if Howe lost her nerve and was afraid to be shackled to a sentimental, intimate study of an unlikely bond.

Howe breezily sets up the situation—after Rennie takes the place of Catherine’s recently deceased roommate, Catherine tells her about her long-held dream to leave, which her ineffectual son Royal has been no help with—yet keeps arbitrarily puncturing their plans to take the QE2 cruise ship across the ocean to France by letting a group of outrageously lunatic senior citizens living at Mount Airy elbow its way into the proceedings.

These people wheel themselves in and bump into each other or start screaming for no reason or stammer uncontrollably or…you get the picture. They are written as condescending caricatures, and Howe’s failure to sketch them with any more depth than cartoons, coupled with her refusal to concentrate on Catherine and Rennie, relegates Chasing Manet to also-ran status, a minor but distinct sin from a major playwright.

Michael Wilson’s sly staging gets the requisite mileage out of these situations, even if he too seems stumped by the random busyness of it all. A supporting cast of five does decent if unexceptional work in various roles, while as the leads, Lynn Cohen is a sweetly befuddled Rennie and Jane Alexander—always a powerful actress—is a strong, exasperated, ironic and mentally tough Catherine. They, more so than the author, give Chasing Manet its colorful palette.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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