NEW YORK – Amanda Peet makes a promising turn into playwriting with this small-scale drama veined with caustic comedy, a work both topical and personal that succeeds on its own refreshingly modest terms. Like Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, its central figure is a woman in the Ruth Madoff mold, but Peet’s interest in her is less as a character study than as an avenue to explore the emotional fallout of public disgrace for those caught in the crossfire. More obliquely, The Commons of Pensacola reflects with insight and compassion on women at turning points where age and diminishing prospects can be confronting foes, whether you’re the wife of a financial fraudster or an actress.
In Manhattan Theatre Club’s world-premiere Off Broadway production, the play is staged with crisp economy by artistic director Lynne Meadow (The Assembled Parties) on Santo Loquasto’s single set, a relentlessly beige Florida apartment that might almost be the drabbed-down version of The Golden Girls’ old digs.
It also has ideal leads that capture the complicated chemistry of a difficult mother-daughter relationship. Blythe Danner is Judith, the frazzled wife guilty by association with her husband, a crooked financier whose swindles have been exposed. This ordeal has prompted her to retreat, stripped of her assets, to the Redneck Riviera, where the Feds are keeping tabs on every dime she spends. As her daughter Becca, an actress of seemingly limited range whose initial attitude toward the self-exiled Judith is judgmental, Sarah Jessica Parker takes on her first New York stage role in more than a decade. She seems right at home, however, and even with the occasional signature tic, there’s no trace of Carrie Bradshaw-esque self-regard in Parker’s subtle layering of opportunism, impatience, immaturity, anger, disappointment and hurt, ultimately softening into acceptance.
Unlike Cate Blanchett’s neurotically self-pitying Jasmine in Allen’s recent movie, Judith is neither delusional nor aggressively defensive, but nor is she entirely upfront. While her employment of a maid (the terrific Nilaja Sun in a sharp characterization) is partly a refusal to let go of her former comforts, it’s also a necessity given Judith’s poor health and her struggle to keep her pharmaceutical regimen straight.
Peet shows her inexperience by occasionally forcing one-liners such as Judith ruefully declaring, “I’m the only person in the state of Florida who can’t wait to get Alzheimer’s.” But there’s real nuance in Danner’s modulations from weepy hopelessness through proud defiance, and numerous points in between. None of the characters is strictly black or white; there’s a lot of gray in all of them.
Judith welcomes the reprieve from isolation when Becca flies in from Los Angeles for a visit, even if she doesn’t bother concealing her raised eyebrows over her daughter’s much younger journalist boyfriend, Gabe (Michael Stahl-David). But when Judith finds herself alone with him, she quickly gets his number, which is also when the play really starts to show its teeth.
The plan is to exploit Judith’s notoriety as the wife of a man who bankrupted innocent people. Gabe and Becca want to produce a mother-and-daughter reality show (Gabe tries to dignify it by calling it a docu-series) that would humanize the family figures caught up in the scandal by organizing rapprochement encounters with former acquaintances and scam victims. While Becca hesitates to broach the subject when she sees her mother’s frail state, Gabe blunders in, prompting a magnificent display of scorn from Judith, and then a nasty fall that lands her in hospital.
In the meantime, Becca’s wild-child teenage niece Lizzy (Zoe Levin) has turned up, reactivating her aunt’s barely dormant adolescence before causing more awkward complications. Next to arrive, after the accident, is Lizzy’s mother, Ali (Ali Marsh), Judith’s estranged other daughter, who makes Becca seem a paragon of forgiveness.
Peet coaxes forth the conflicts with a measured hand. As a hurricane forecast gets downgraded by meteorologists to a tropical disturbance, the storm inside the apartment steadily brews, churning up guilt, resentment, suspicion, betrayal, entitlement, self-justification and self-righteousness. Ali is shocked by her sister’s apparent lack of empathy for the people whose lives were ruined. Becca is not someone accustomed to thinking too far beyond herself, but the play is not some banal journey of enlightenment for her. Nor is it an attempt to whitewash the peripheral awareness that women like Judith may have had about their powerful husbands’ financial shenanigans.
In a lovely time-lapse lighting effect by Jason Lyons near the end of the play, night shifts into day. That distance, without getting too tidy, allows room for understanding, and for the characters to express regret. What Peet achieves, paradoxically, is not unrelated to Gabe’s purported aim with the TV project. With a soulful strain of melancholy that doesn’t entirely excuse anyone’s faults, her engaging play shows us the damaged human beings beneath the wreckage.
Venue: NY City Center Stage I, New York (runs through Feb. 9)
Cast: Blythe Danner, Sarah Jessica Parker, Zoe Levin, Ali Marsh, Michael Stahl-David, Nilaja Sun
Director: Lynne Meadow
Playwright: Amanda Peet
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Tom Broecker
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Sound designer: Jill BC DuBoff
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club