It’s alarming to have to report that Eric Coble’s two hander which starred Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella closed Sunday night after 16 performances on Broadway. A battery of 25 producers could not continue to support this small but intriguing small play which offered the excellent Ms. Parsons a chance to let ‘er rip as Alexandra, an octogenarian mother of fiercely independent spirit, fighting for her very life as her three children try to convince her to abandon her beautiful Park Slope town house, and move into a suitable nursing home.
Parsons, at 87 herself, gave a smashing performance, projecting everything from tenderness (not much) to rage (a lot), with all sorts of subtle variations in between. Her adversary was her middle aged gay son Chris, who’d disappeared from her world, is now living a lonely life in New Mexico (to which Mother constantly refers as Arizona). He’s come home to her in Brooklyn at the urgent request of his brother and sister, as their last hope, for Chris has been the only one of the three who might have a chance to convince her they are trying to do what’s best for all of them. Mother is so determined to stay put that she has surrounded all exits with molotov cocktails, threatening to blow up the house (and most of the block on which it rests) if they don’t leave her alone.
It’s not epic, but as an examination of a very specific family unit, Mr. Coble has created a crucible that will stand up to the fiery flames of this mother-son battle almost to the death. Some of the anger is comical, and the play and the performance earn its many resultant laughs. In the course of its 90 minutes, enough of the back story emerges so that we have a clear idea of the life this family led when it was young, of the disparity of viewpoints possible even amongst blood relations, and most particularly with regard to end of life choices and decisions.
I found it arresting and refreshing in that it dealt with a subject often swept under the rug — the specifics of how to help an old parent live out a long life with as much serenity as possible.
Playwright Coble has touched on some easily recognizable syndromes, and he’s found words for some ugly truths. His title refers to the velocity with which time speeds by as it is running out. On occasion he repeats himself, and that makes the 90 minutes seem longer. Judicious pruning would help.
The play has been done in three regional theatres, where audiences have heartily responded to it. Arena Stage in Washington, DC, with this cast, directed, as they were here, by Molly Smith, is one of them. I think it’s to the Broadway community’s discredit that it’s been dismissed so quickly just because it doesn’t seem to appeal to the crowd seeking mindless entertainment or media-stars-on-parade.
What’s alarming is that plays like The Children’s Hour, Picnic, Absurd Person Singular, Native Son, Summer and Smoke and so many others would have had to find homes in the regional theatres, but not on the Broadway that welcomed them all.
The Broadway production of The Velocity of Autumn was onstage at the Booth Theatre, opening April 1 and closing May 4, 2014.
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.