Monday, January 6, 2014

A Hopeless Mess: The Commons of Pensacola

Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker in The Commons of Pensacola (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The actress Amanda Peet has an earthbound vivacity and an unpredictable way of attacking a line; I loved watching her on Aaron Sorkin’s TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and as Mark Ruffalo’s wife in a terrific little movie called What Doesn’t Kill You that went straight to DVD (when the company that produced it went bankrupt on the verge of its intended release). But her playwriting debut, The Commons of Pensacola, which the Manhattan Theatre Club is producing off-Broadway at MTC Stage I at City Center, is a hopeless mess. It’s set in a retirement condo in Pensacola, Florida, where Judith (Blythe Danner), the wife of a Bernie Madoff-like Jewish financier who victimized Holocaust survivors, now lives on the restricted income allowed her. It’s Thanksgiving, and she’s visited by her daughter Becca (Sarah Jessica Parker), an actress on her uppers who arrives with a younger boyfriend (Michael Stahl-David), self-described as a guerilla journalist. On their heels come sixteen-year-old Lizzy (Zoe Levin), Judith’s granddaughter, and finally Lizzy’s mother, Ali (Ali Marsh), who hasn’t spoken to Judith for a year but flies down when a fall lands her, unconscious, in the hospital.

It’s a good assumption that the subject of a play with this plot premise is the fallout from a front-page scam for the family of the sociopath who engineered it, but Becca’s financial desperation – when her agent calls, it isn’t to offer her work but to find out if she’s available New Year’s Eve to babysit her daughter – is unrelated to what her father did, and so is her boyfriend Gabe’s having sex with Lizzy while Becca is at the hospital with her mother. The narrative feels as though Peet thought it up, episode by episode, on a caffeine jag. There are individual scenes that don’t make sense on their face. Left alone with Judith hours after meeting her for the first time, Gabe pitches the idea of a documentary series he and Becca have conceived that would allow her to talk about her husband’s crime and show some sympathy for the people he bankrupted. When she finds the idea repugnant, he makes it clear that he doesn’t believe she could possibly have been ignorant of what her husband was up to. It’s a fact about notoriety, like any other kind of celebrity, that complete strangers feel emboldened to proclaim their point of view, but is it likely that a man meeting his girlfriend’s mother for the first time, a guest in her home, would insult her?

The script contains the kind of glitches that surely someone in the script development process – for example, the director, Lynne Meadow (who’s also the MTC’s artistic director) – might have spotted. Ferreting in her grandmother’s freezer, Lizzy accidentally dislodges a divider and discovers bundles of cash that Judith has hidden. When Ali, who knows about the money, because her mother offered her some to help with Lizzy’s education – it’s the source, we learn, of her break with Judith, whom she urged to turn it over to the Feds – shows up, Becca tries to prevent her from opening the fridge. But Becca wasn’t on stage when Lizzy found the money; only Gabe was. Couldn’t Peet have written a conversation between Becca and one of them so we wouldn’t have to guess how she found out? Becca learns about Gabe’s cheating when Ali lifts the cushions of the fold-out couch where he slept the night before and finds a condom wrapper; when she shows it to Gabe and orders him to get out, Judith stands side by side with her daughter in a way that suggests that she’s seen the evidence (though she hasn’t) and knows what Becca is upset about (though she couldn’t).

Playwright Amanda Peet

Danner has one good moment, when Becca insists on the truth about how much she knew about her husband’s criminal activities (which happens just before she explodes at Judith for not having offered her some of the money). Danner is the greatest stage actress in the country; it’s always wonderful to see her. But there’s nothing for her to play most of the time because the scenes have no shape. The dialogue has a casualness that could only work if it had an underpinning of technique – if it only sounded casual. The only actors who have clear objectives to play are Ali Marsh and Nilaja Sun as Lorena, Judith’s part-time caregiver, so they’re the only ones who manage to give performances. Parker is completely stranded: mostly what she does is look increasingly depressed and, with nothing to drive her character, eventually she falls back on melodrama.

This is the second MTC show in a row that the company should have passed on, and it’s much, much worse than the first, Sharr White’s The Snow Geese, which was derivative and underwritten but at least had a dramatic structure. The best thing about The Snow Geese, besides Danny Burstein’s performance as a German √©migr√© during the First World War who’s had to suffer the hatred of his neighbors, was the sumptuous production values, and the best thing about The Commons of Pensacola is Jason Lyons’s lighting. There have got to be better scripts out there.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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