On Thursday, 16 April, my friend Diana and I went to 59E59 to see the last of our subscription shows at Primary Stages, the world première of Tina Howe's Chasing Manet. I'm not a big fan of Howe--not that I have anything against her work, I just don't follow it much. I think the last thing of hers I saw was Coastal Disturbances with Tim Daly (brother of Tyne) and a then-unknown Annette Bening, a good many years ago. (I remember that I saw it at the time I did an interview with Carole Rothman, co-artistic director of Second Stage and director of the production. I was editing Directors Notes, a newsletter for directors/artistic directors, at the time. That was way back in the middle '80s.) The Times had already run its review of Manet, of course, and it was middling, though Ben Brantley had some good things to say about Jane Alexander's acting and that of her stage partner, Lynn Cohen. A feature on Howe's long friendship with Alexander had appeared in the Times the day before and it had hinted at some aspects of the play that didn't bode well for me, so I guess I was primed to read what Brantley said the next day. As my friends already know, I have a problem with Brantley's reviews and I distrust his evaluations, but this case seemed like the adage about the stopped clock.
I'm sad to report that both Times pieces were right. (The article on the friendship wasn't meant to be an evaluation of the production; it just let some kitties out the sack.) Chasing Manet, which is old-fashioned dramaturgy, a well-made play, just isn't terribly exciting, either dramatically or theatrically. One review quipped that it's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest meets The Golden Girls--the TV comedy came up a lot in coverage--and I'd agree to an extent--though I'd add Heroes, I think. It's simplistic, but not inaccurate. Like Heroes, Manet's a study of the loneliness of age and the response of not going gentle into the night (with apologies to Dylan Thomas, whoever he was). As a theme, even ignoring the recent Heroes, that's been pretty well worked over, I think. There are scores of plays, movies, and TV shows that dissect that aspect of life from just about every angle and unless the writer has a really new perspective to jig things up some, she's covering well-plowed ground. The best acting in the world probably won't liven that up a whole lot. (I guess I could really just stop here, couldn't I? But I'm logorrheic, so I won't.)
Chasing Manet is the story of Catherine Sargent, a once-famous modernist painter, who now lives in the Mount Airy Nursing Home in the Bronx ("where they have that vulgar cheer")--Riverdale, her son emphatically reminds her--because, among her other ailments, she is virtually blind. The matriarch of a patrician Boston family, she is a cousin of John Singer Sargent and was once a lover of André Malraux. Her son, Royal Lowell, has installed her in this residence so she can be nearer to him (though he doesn't visit as often as he planned). Royal's something of a disappointment to Catherine: he's a professor at Columbia where, instead of writing poetry, he just teaches it. Catherine chants, "Out! Out! I want out!" and there's no place she'd rather go off to than the Paris of her youth and her dreams. When the play opens, her previous roommate has just died during the night, and Catherine gets a new one, a Jewish woman named Rennie with a swiss-cheese memory and focus. (She insists Rennie's short for Ramona, but her daughter keeps reminding her that that's her mother's name.) Rennie suffers from dementia and hallucinates; she thinks she's at a hotel and spends a lot of her time in conversation with her deceased husband, Herschel. Catherine persuades Rennie to act as her accomplice in an escape to Paris on the QE2: Rennie will be Catherine's eyes; Catherine will be Rennie's legs. (I won't say whether they succeed--unless you decide you're never going to see the play and insist I give away the ending.)
The two main characters are polar opposites, which seems quite contrived. Catherine is taciturn, erudite, aristocratic, self-centered, somewhat arrogant, depressed, and lonely. She spends the first several minutes of the play asleep in a near-fetal posture with her face to the wall. She's a little misanthropic, but though she says little most of the time, she has all her wits. Her body is failing, but her mind still works fine. Rennie, on the other hand, is loquacious, happy, friendly, loving and loved, and comfortably middle class. She's confined to a wheelchair or, for short distances, a walker, but it's her mind that's failing more than her body. But she's always surrounded by family who come to visit in packs. Just about every characteristic that's displayed is made a study in contrasts: Catherine dresses in a white satin nightgown--Rennie is partial to cotton flowered prints, sort of a Jewish Edith Bunker; Catherine wears her snow white hair long and flowing--Rennie is never without a hat over her nebbishy gray mop; Catherine is elegant--Rennie is dowdy-cute.
It turns out that much of this is drawn from Howe's own life and family. Catherine, a character the playwright has penned before in different guises, is based on Howe's Aunt Maddy but salted with aspects of a family friend, Margaret Holland Sargent, who was, in fact, a distant relative of the famous American painter and who dumped her husband in Paris. In the 1980s, when the play is set, Aunt Maddy was confined to a home in the same New York neighborhood as Catherine and she also kept to her bed as Howe and her brother visited in attempts to comfort her--much as Royal tries to cheer his mother in the play. At the same time, Howe's husband's 100-year-old uncle, a Jew like Rennie, was in an assisted-living residence where his family would gather by the dozens and gossip, eat, joke, and tell family stories. Furthermore, Howe and Alexander were college chums at Sarah Lawrence where Alexander directed and then appeared in Howe's first play, Closing Time. After graduation in 1959, the two pals sailed together for Europe, Alexander going off to Edinburgh (to study math--she was going to be a computer programmer!), but Howe, like her heroine four decades earlier, headed for Paris and the Sorbonne (to study philosophy). In Paris, as Catherine Sargent was drawn to the Louvre and Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, Howe was taken by Ionesco's The Lesson and The Bald Soprano (which had opened in 1957 at the Théatre de la Huchette and are still running there today). Howe is recorded as having proclaimed, "It changed my life. It was like a bolt of lightening going through my head." (Actually, I can imagine a little of that: I was knocked on my ass the first time I saw Waiting for Godot at my college theater a few years after Howe had her epiphany in Paris. I saw my first Ionesco, Exit the King, a few years later at the same theater.)
Anyway, it seems Howe is doing a lot of recycling for Chasing Manet: her life, her family and in-laws, and previous plays. Maybe that's part of the problem. When I wrote about Charles Busch's Third Story, I complained that he had too many balls in the air because he seemed to have done a little house-cleaning in his file of unused plot ideas. I think Howe may have done the same thing--pulled together a whole bunch of ideas she wanted to use one day and put them all into one play. They only fit together with a lot of hammering and wrenching.
As I said, I'm not a fan of Howe's work, so I don't have the continuity to make generalizations, but according to most of the reviews and commentary, her most frequent theme is the celebration of "human (and particularly female) eccentricity and willfulness." According to Howe's own statement, "The play is about all those far-flung journeys of the departing soul, [the] longing for adventure, movement, for something else." The two most dramatic moments in the play, both monologues, are about striking out and experiencing the most profound moment in one's life. Catherine explains to the family of Rennie her favorite painting, Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, a copy of which hangs over her bed--and which she says has always been with her as a talisman. With great passion, Catherine shows them that it was not the nude woman in the painting that was shocking, but the nude woman in the context of the family picnic, that she was so casually out of place. “It wasn’t the fact of her nakedness that was so shocking, but its implausibility,” Catherine tells her attentive audience. “Placing a naked woman in a public place sounded the call for artistic freedom, telling the artist he could paint not only what he wanted, but how." I suspect that was how the Ionescos had made the playwright-to-be feel when she first saw them 50 years ago. I think it's also meant to be the play's statement of its own theme.
The other poetic moment, delivered by David Margulies (an actor who was once one of my teachers at Rutgers a little over 30 years ago) as Henry, a near-silent patient who has up to this point uttered only variations on "I need help!" Suddenly he snaps into a riveting monologue that reveals he was an archeologist who discovered a mystical treasure at a dig in the Fertile Crescent. He launches into a passionate reverie of how he saw “flying dinosaurs singing actual lyrics.” Like Catherine and the Manet, this is Henry's transcendent moment, the one that's emblematic of how we're all supposed to live, but while Catherine's lecture on Manet has a rationale within the play, as wonderful as Henry's speech is as a piece of dramatic writing, it is a set piece--dropped in to an otherwise arbitrary scene of residents in an art therapy session. It comes out of nowhere, astonishes us for a moment, and then disappears, leaving no repercussions. (I'll bet it shows up in a lot of acting classes and audition sessions, though!)
As far as the production is concerned, I can't say that director Michael Wilson did anything wrong. The problems I had with the play are in the script, not in the staging. I don't believe Wilson could have done a better job, even if he didn't really do anything noteworthy or remarkable. The work of the cast is fine, so Wilson discharged that part of his job perfectly well. The set (designed by Tony Straiges with lighting by Howell Binkley), which is an open view of Catherine and Rennie's room and the L-shaped hallway downstage and stage right, is overshadowed with wheelchairs hanging from the ceiling--the one truly absurdist touch in an otherwise conventional play. (If Ionesco had such a profound impact on Howe, I'd hope his influence would shake up her dramaturgy more.) The set functions well enough, though it does make the therapy scenes, played in the downstage "hallway" area, a little cramped and unlocalized.
As for the acting, the five-actor ensemble who play all the other patients, the attendants and staff, and Rennie's visitors, are fine. The characters they have to play are often sketchy and flat, but each cast member finds at least one moment where she or he can fill out the outlines, like David Margulies's memory speech. On the whole, though, not much is demanded of them except quick costume changes and distinct vocal characterizations. (Vanessa Aspillaga, for instance, changes accents: she's a Latina as Esperanza, the attendant, and French as Marie-Claire, the art therapist. It's not subtle, but it does the trick.) Jack Gilpin, as Catherine's son Royal, has a thankless role: it's his job to stand in Catherine's room and let her scold him for being ineffectual. He plays three other roles, but Royal is his principal assignment. The two leads, of course, have more substantial fare to chew on.
I know I've seen Lynn Cohen before--I recognize her cherubic face from somewhere, but I can't begin to place her. (It turns out I haven't seen any of the New York shows she lists in her bio, and though I must have seen her in some of the TV and movie work she lists, I can't picture her.) She certainly bottles up the sweetness aspect of Rennie, and the bubbliness. She's more than believable whether she's being Mrs. Malaprop ("We create a division--then we make a break for it while everyone's distilled," she says to Catherine when they begin to plan their escape), chatting with Herschel, or talking about a dip in the hotel pool. Rennie's a little like Estelle Getty's part in Golden Girls in that she slips in and out of the conventional world. Sophia Petrillo couldn't censor her thoughts, which she spoke uncontrollably; Rennie can't distinguish between reality and her delusions and pops in and out of lucidity in an instant. Cohen handles this perfectly and makes it plausible, not to mention often funny. The problem is--and this isn't Cohen's fault--the laughs are cheap. In fact, they're much like Getty's on TV--the sight of a cute little old lady behaving irrationally is funny the way 12-year-olds find potty jokes funny. Mark Twain, it's not!
Finally, Jane Alexander. She's nothing if not professional, and she takes Catherine and runs with her. Her work on stage can't be faulted as far as I'm concerned. She makes the curmudgeonly Catherine not just believable but sympathetic and intriguing. The character's not one-note, but she isn't more than three or four, and Alexander wrings all the variety she can out of them. She does her friend proud--only Howe has let her down. The character doesn't really warrant the star-quality that Alexander brings to it. Tennessee Williams had a thing about Alma Winemiller--he identified with her and couldn't let her go. He wrote two plays for her, Summer and Smoke and then Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Howe has a comparable attraction for Catherine or Maddy or whatever Howe names the character, but while Williams gave his character two good vehicles (some would say at least one of them great), Howe has relegated Catherine to a contrived, middling, shallow little work, not worthy of her or the theme she articulates. (I wonder if this is why I've never become a fan of Howe's plays. D'ya think?)
Chasing Manet left little immediate impression on me; while I was watching it, I found my mind wandering and I had to make myself concentrate on the play. I looked at some of the other reviews on line and the Times was among the kindest. Only Back Stage actually praised the play; Show Business, the New York Post, and the Daily News were cool to cold, mostly summing the effort up as "a mildly pleasant diversion," "a strained dark comedy," and "a trivial pursuit." Variety was the absolute cruelest. Its opening line declared that "'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." It goes downhill from there!