Monday, September 25, 2017

The Treasurer: Mother and Son

Peter Friedman and Deanna Dunagan in The Treasurer. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Max Posner’s The Treasurer, which is receiving a tip-top production by David Cromer for Playwrights Horizon (at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in New York City), is a lopsided comedy-drama that begins as an exploration of the guilt a middle-aged son (Peter Friedman) feels over his lack of affection for an aging mother (Deanna Dunagan). What I mean by “lopsided” is that Posner’s play doesn’t head at its theme directly; it keeps getting derailed and turned around. It’s absurdist in style, but acknowledging that fact doesn’t resolve its shaggy-dog quality. And by the end of its ninety-five minutes I realized that I didn’t want a resolution – that its meandering is part of its charm and also part of what makes it touching.

The reason that the protagonist (who is identified in the program simply as The Son) doesn’t love his mother, Ida Armstrong, is that she abandoned him and his two brothers years ago when she divorced his father and married someone else. She’s never owned up to her emotional detachment from her children, but now, widowed and veering into dementia, she needs them. Ida is a flagrant spendthrift who either has no idea how little money she has or has chosen to ignore the facts. In a conference with his brothers, Peter is chosen to act as the steward of her money, which ends up meaning that, after they place her in a senior residence – the one she requests, though it’s way out of her price range, so her children have to make up the difference – he has to cut off her credit cards and OK her purchases. Ida acts with a gloved intractability: when he tries to reason with her over the phone, she remains silent until he stops saying things she doesn’t want to hear.

The set-up – self-absorbed, impossible mother; exasperated, helpless son – is reminiscent of another recent play, Richard Greenberg’s comedy Our Mother’s Brief Affair, but though it’s sometimes very funny, The Treasurer is just as often poignant as it ventures into the territory of Ida’s slipping away from rationality and her increasing horror as she recognizes that she’s no longer in control. There’s a comic scene in a department store where she buys a purple corduroy jacket from an African-American saleswoman, her condescending attempts at liberalism first infuriating the woman (who seems to have to summon all her employee training to maintain her patience) and then, clearly against her will, amusing her. But their second encounter, when Ida finds herself in the store again some time later without any idea of how she got there, is upsetting, and the saleswoman reaches out to her, treating her with surprising compassion. Dunagan, who starred in August: Osage County on Broadway, gives another remarkable performance as Ida, and Friedman matches her. Friedman is a New York-based  stage, film and TV actor whose face is more familiar than his name, though he’s done so much fine work that he should be better known. I’ve been a fan of his since I saw him in the “White Rabbit” episode of Law & Order in 1994, a fictionalized version of the Katherine Ann Power case, where he played a professor who, called to testify in the case of a radical who stayed underground for decades before being found – a woman with whom he was hopelessly in love – tries to turn back time and become, for her, the sixties revolutionary he never managed to be. (His scene on the stand is one of the most haunting in the episode, which is my all-time favorite entry in the series.) I thought he was terrific in the 2005 Roundabout Theatre production of Twelve Angry Men and in Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution in 2010, and he’s terrific here.

Much of the dialogue in The Treasurer takes place on the phone, with Pun Bandhu and Marinda Anderson expertly playing all the other characters (including the Friedman characters’ two brothers).  In one scene, Ida dials a number that has stuck in her head although she doesn’t know whose it is, only to find that it’s now the number of a cell phone belonging to a young man who’s attempting to reconcile with his mother after a long time away – probably in prison, though the text doesn’t specify. (Bandhu is especially good in this role.) The tenuousness of this random connection between strangers, which affects both  of them, is accentuated by Laura Jellinek’s mysterious, surrealist set, which usually delineates Ida’s apartment stage right and The Son’s study stage left but also suggests other cubicle-like spaces that can shift easily into one another because they feel temporary, undefined. Cromer’s staging is quite beautiful and his handling of mood and tone reminds you what makes him one of our most talented directors. The play is small-scale and I don’t wish to overrate it, but it made me sit up and take notice.

– 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 StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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