Amanda Peet is an actress with impressive credits on stage (Awake and Sing), on screen (“Something’s Gotta Give”, “Igby Goes Down”), the TV series “Studio 60 on Sunset Strip”, and she will soon be seen on HBO in “Togetherness”. Unusual then that she should now be arriving on the New York stage, courtesy of the Manhattan Theatre Club, as playwright.
She’s not the first actor to abandon the lit side of the stage for the orchestra floor, but most of her colleagues have done it the other way round. From Noel Coward to John Huston they usually establish themselves as writers or directors, and then surprise us with a crafty turn as performer. Comden and Green gave us the old double whammy by writing themselves two fat parts in their first show, On the Town, and one might have expected Ms. Peet to serve herself well by playing Becca, a central character in The Commons of Pensacola . But no, she appears to have decided to experience the full term pregnancy and delivery of this, her first play without the distraction of an appearance on stage.
Fortunately, Sarah Jessica Parker has agreed to play the part, for she too is at a crossroads in her own career. Much admired by a legion of fans for her work in nine years worth of “Sex and the City”, her feature film career has been less than triumphant, though that is because she’s not had the best material. In “Becca”, she has found a role that embraces the qualities she brought to “Carrie Bradshaw” on her series, but allows her to probe more deeply, to prove she’s capable of more than modeling Manolo Blahnik’s designer shoes and writing an advice-to-the lovelorn column for thirty-something ladies.
Ms. Peet’s dialog is pungent, terse, amusing and revealing. She’s put some very funny stuff into the mouth of “Judith”, and it offers veteran Blythe Danner a chance to sink her teeth into a very different sort of woman than her usual WASP matron who is either airheaded (“Meet the Fockers”) or wistful and sad (“The Great Santini”).
In this current outing, she plays the deposed mother in a family, whose husband has swindled the general public and almost all of the couple’s friends and family of billions of dollars in Wall Street shenanigans that can put only one family in mind. Ms. Peet has fictionalized the Madoff clan but she has come awfully close to giving us an accurate picture of what must have gone down in the privacy of their moments together. Here we find Judith, dieting on fists full of pills to get her through her shame and frustration because of her husband’s misdeeds. Her daughter Becca, 42, a not successful would-be actress, is on hand to “look after” Mother, but she’s brought with her an eager younger beau, a television photo journalist who wants to do a documentary on the disgraced family, and he needs Judith’s co-operation. He doesn’t get it, and his resultant defection leaves Becca with few options about her future. As the play ends, she is caught as a deer in headlights – unable to move in any direction, stuck with a Mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown and other disasters as the dark seems to be spreading to include her teen age neice and her sister Ali as well. It even affects Lorena, the housekeeper/nurse/aide who must be let go once the emotional and financial house of cards that supports the family collapses.
A vivid and first rate cast has been assembled by Artistic Director Lynne Meadow to illuminate this unhappy tale for us. Led by Danner and Parker with two nuanced, complex and arresting performances, the four other actors manage to run with the meticulously drawn characters they’ve been handed by Ms. Peet and to color them with distinctive brush strokes that make them leap off the stage. As a result the play is always engrossing.
Unlike some dramas, though, it does not offer us catharsis. We have been witness to the sad unraveling of the lives of a handful of self serving people who have been living in denial for decades and who now find themselves unable to do anything about it. It’s too late to mend their ways, and they are stuck in an airless sort of hell. “The Commons”, a modest condo community in Pensacola, Florida is Ms. Peet’s sad version of the end of the road.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of The Commons of Pensacola is onstage through January 16, 2014 at New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55th Street (between 6th & 7th Aves.) NYC. Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
Richard Seff is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.