Theater Reviews

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Playwrights Horizon, New York
Through Nov. 11

From Word 1, the dialogue in "A Feminine Ending" walks the line between quirky and annoying. Within 20 minutes, annoying wins.

Playwright Sarah Treem seems to think that ratcheting up her characters' eccentricities makes them more engaging. That's the first problem. The second is that a comedy with serious undertones can't succeed without some degree of credibility.

That's too bad, because the premise -- about dreams being put on hold thanks to life's realities -- has potential. It's exhibited as twentysomething Amanda (Gillian Jacobs) talks directly to the audience about trying to balance her ambitions as a composer and "career oboist" with the needs of her New York boyfriend, rock-star-in-the-making Jack (Alec Beard). Amanda's tale is counterpointed with that of her exasperated mother, Kim (Marsha Mason), and philosophical father, David (Richard Masur), who recently reached their 30th anniversary.

A frantic phone call from Kim sends Amanda to her small-town New Hampshire roots, where she learns that Kim has decided to leave David. As Amanda probes what's behind the flare-up, she runs into old beau Billy (Joe Paulik) and begins to question her own future.

But as the themes grow darker, the dialogue gets sillier. It's like Treem is trying to imitate David E. Kelley's unique manner of mixing tragedy with the absurd. Here, one simply cancels out the other, with nothing new or interesting communicated in the process.

While the script is the main stumbling block, director Blair Brown does little to make things better. Brown's abilities as a performer have been well documented -- from TV's "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" to her Tony-winning performance in "Copenhagen" as well as dozens of memorable film roles -- but she has yet to exhibit a penchant for behind-the-scenes work. As with her most recent off-Broadway outing, last year's "Lovely Day," there's a distinct lack of focus and clarity.

Although the acting is similarly disjointed, newcomer Jacobs gives it her best shot as Amanda. For the most part, she's relatively engaging, combining spunk, vulnerability and latent anger into an appealing package. Likewise, veteran character actor Masur, while underused, delivers David's lines with an ease and nonchalance that brightens every scene he's in.

On the other hand, Beard fails to generate enough charisma to believe in Jack's dawning super-celebrity status. Paulik's turn is even harder to swallow. Granted, Billy is defined by his excruciatingly wacky manner, but Paulik thinks that shouting his lines makes them funnier. Wrong.

The evening's biggest disappointment, however, involves four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason, who navigates the script's weakest sections. Although they're delivered in her trademark mellifluous tones, she's miscast as the self-involved maternal figure. Her delivery is too one-note and cartoonlike to generate any real fire. Since Mason shows up far too infrequently these days, it's a shame to see her efforts wasted.

As is, the best parts of "Feminine Ending" are the opening and closing sequences, which not only explain the title but nicely bookend Amanda's journey. Sadly, what's between those bookends is a very different story.

A FEMININE ENDING
Presented by Playwrights Horizon
Credits:
Playwright: Sarah Treem
Director: Blair Brown
Set designer: Cameron Anderson
Costume designer: Michael Krass
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Original music/sound designer: Obadiah Eaves
Cast:
Amanda: Gillian Jacobs
Kim: Marsha Mason
David: Richard Masur
Jack: Alec Beard
Billy: Joe Paulik
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