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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Now comes Tina Howe's Chasing Manet, a somewhat too quirky fable about two octogenarians in what John Donne called death's twilight who seek one last fling away from the Mount Airy Nursing Home in Riverdale to feel fully alive. Actually it's one resident, Catherine Sargent (Jane Alexander), who most fervently hates being at Mount Airy. Once a successful painter whose Boston Brahmin family fortune has disappeared through her husband's bad investments, Catherine is now legally blind and not in the best of health which is why her son, a Columbia professor, felt it best for her to be in a home near him. Her only initial utterance, "Out! Out! I want out" sums up this latest rumination on dealing with death.
Rennie Walters (Lynn Cohen) isn't exactly the sort of friend Catherine might have had in her pre-nursing home life. But Catherine needs an ally if her "getting out" scheme is to work, and Rennie's dementia makes her an easy to enlist conspirator. Her role in this implausible odd couple adventure will be as a sort of seeing eye dog in a wheelchair.
The scheme Catherine has cooked up is a rather grand one — a voyage on the QE2, destination Paris (which accounts for the 1980s time frame). It was in Paris that she first saw Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, a portrait of seated female nude attended by two fully dressed young men by a young painter named Edouard Manet, a print of which she's kept throughout her own career as a painter as "a reminder of what a feisty young painter can do." That Manet print which is the only personal touch in her half of the room she shares with Rennie, is Howe's obvious metaphor of what a feisty old lady can do, or at least try to do.
Catherine's battle to be in Paris rather than a Bronx nursing home when the Grim Reaper arrives is intended to brighten this contemplation of the painful last exits that even strong-willed people like her, as well as those with lots of loving relatives like Rennie often can't escape. 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 days, 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.
As Ms. Howe mentioned at an Outer Critics playwrights panel earlier in the season (and again in a pre-opening NYTimes interview), this play, like Pride's Crossing (review), was inspired by her real life Aunt Maddie who, unlike the channel swimmer of the former and the painter in Chasing Manet, never climbed any mountains in terms of travel and achievement. Howe's inability to comfort that beloved aunt during her last, sad days at a nursing home (in Riverdale) exacerbated her own fears of ending up in such an institution. And since Howe, unlike Mabel in Pride's Crossing, did marry the Jewish man she fell in love with, she's also used her new play to bring together characters from her Boston roots and her married life.
Watching once vibrant people in various states of decrepitude, especially for those of us old enough to ponder our own last exits, is likely to overarch the playwright's effort to be both funny and hopeful. Still, Alexander has some wonderful moments. The scene when she rouses herself from her mute, face-to-the-wall inertia long enough to educate the visiting Waltzer family to the difference between Monet and Manet and the importance of the Nude woman in the Manet painting over her bed, is a highlight; so is her wry, introspective monologue after Rennie's daughter invites her to be part of their next outing for lunch away from the Mount Airy.
Since this IS essentially a fable, I suppose some details that wouldn't pass muster in a strictly realistic play should not be looked at too closely; and yet, even given the circumstances it's hard to believe that people like the Waltzers would be likely to arrive at Mount Airy without having made exact arrangements as to single or shared rooms. What's more, no nursing home would ever leave a resident's medications within easy view and reach, and an 84-year-old woman's long white hair would be a lot thinner and stringier than Alexander's shiny, flowing white wig.
Scenic designer Tony Straiges has made a modest attempt to follow the playwright's request for a set that's open enough to cast a dreamlike aura over the set. To do so, there are no walls between hallways and Catherine and Rennie's very ordinary, sparely furnished room and two of the wheelchairs used by most of the Mount Airy residents are suspended from the ceiling. Are those wheelchairs omens of how the physical constraints of old age underscore the improbability of Catherine's wish for final fling at life, or do they portend a cheerier "mission accomplished" finale? You'll probably come up with the correct answer even if you haven't seen the play.