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A memory play about a grown son’s tortured relationship with his overbearing, preening mother. No, it’s not The Glass Menagerie but rather the new drama by Max Posner, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, directed by David Cromer. Featuring superb performances by Peter Friedman and Deanna Dunagan, The Treasurer tackles its difficult subject matter with sensitivity and flights of lyricism. Unfortunately, the play also doesn’t live up to its considerable ambitions. Diffuse and unfocused, it provokes as much impatience as feeling.
The title refers to the narrator, a middle-aged character known only as “The Son” (Friedman), faced with the task of managing the finances of his elderly mother Ida (Dunagan). The relationship between them is complicated, to put it mildly.
“I will be in hell because I don’t love my mom,” he tells us, explaining that she essentially abandoned him and his two brothers when he was a teenager after she married a socially prominent man and moved with him to Albany. Her husband has recently died and she’s now alone and apparently bereft of funds, having been a spendthrift her whole life. With her house being foreclosed, she’s forced to move and The Son has to find a suitable facility. The task is made harder by the fact that he lives in Denver and is trying to coordinate everything from afar.
Meanwhile, Ida goes about her business, ignoring her financial state by buying expensive pillows and making donations to the local symphony. Her need for emotional connection is made clear by her endlessly chatty interactions with various salespeople, charity solicitors and even a stranger she mistakenly calls on the phone (Marinda Anderson and Pun Bandhu ably play the various minor characters). Her situation grows even more precarious when it becomes clear she’s in the early stages of dementia.
There’s plenty of dramatic potential in this work inspired by the playwright’s father and grandmother. But too much of it is unrealized due to the static nature of the proceedings, which largely consist of phone conversations. The writing alternates between the naturalistic and the poetic to uneasy effect, especially in the strained conclusion in which The Son’s forecast about his dire future seems to come true.
For every scene that works, such as The Son’s amusingly desperate attempts to answer online security questions, there’s another that feels extraneous, including his friendly chat with a pregnant passenger during an airplane ride. (That the latter revolves around The Glass Menagerie shows that Posner isn’t shy about revealing his playwriting influences.)
Cromer, who brought considerable emotional force to his productions of such low-key works as Our Town and the musical The Band’s Visit (reopening on Broadway this fall), would seem an ideal choice as director. But his staging here feels unduly fussy and the pacing is sluggish to the point of tedium. Laura Jellinek’s overly elaborate set and Lucy Mackinnon’s projection design add little to the proceedings.
Still, the evening possesses an undeniable emotional resonance that will surely hit home for anyone who’s had to care for an elderly parent, especially those who may have conflicting feelings about the sacrifices involved. Dunagan, who won a Tony for her turn as a very different but similarly difficult matriarch in August: Osage Country, makes her character relatable even at her most irritatingly self-absorbed, and Friedman, who seems incapable of giving a bad performance, is deeply moving as the son who wrestles with his lack of empathy for his mom.
Problematic but affecting, The Treasurer reveals a playwright with promise who just needs some seasoning to bring his ideas to more successful fruition.
Venue: Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York
Cast: Marinda Anderson, Pun Bandhu, Deanna Dunagan, Peter Friedman
Playwright: Max Posner
Director: David Cromer
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: David Hyman
Lighting designer: Bradley King
Sound designer: Mikhail Fikset
Projection designer: Lucky Mackinnon
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
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