Max Posner’s play is called The Treasurer because a grown man is forced to take responsibility for the finances of his aged, widowed mother. But the title also suggests that he will take stock of the sort of debts that can never be repaid – the emotional ones accrued within a family.
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If the premise is not novel, one look at the theater artists involved in The Treasurer offers the promise of a big payout. Deanna Dunagan, who won a Tony for her role as Violet Weston in the Broadway production of August: Osage County, portrays the mother. The son is Peter Friedman, a veteran Off-Broadway actor (Circle Mirror Transformation, Hamlet with Oscar Isaac) whose presence elevates nearly everything he’s in. Its director, David Cromer (Our Town, Tribes, The Band’s Visit, soon to be on Broadway), has an ability to turn even an old warhorse into something aesthetically fresh and emotionally real.
The Treasurer is, as expected, wonderfully acted, and there are a good number of solid scenes, some funny, some moving. But one walks away from The Treasurer as from a family reunion that wasn’t as satisfying as one had hoped.
In the opening monologue, the unnamed son, supposedly riding his bicycle but actually just standing in front of us, explains that his mother, as he puts it, “abandoned my father and me when I was thirteen” – and that she is “impossible,” “selfish,” “delusional.”; that he can’t talk to her for more than two minutes; and that, along with her second husband, she spent more money than they had. So now that she is a widow, the son’s two brothers nominate him to take care of her finances.
The son’s assessment of his mother is so harsh that one hopes for another perspective – one that either demonstrates the accuracy of what he says, or that reveals how much his emotions have distorted the reality. (Are we supposed to just accept that she literally “abandoned” him, or is that just how he felt?) But neither is forthcoming. For most of the play mother and son talk to each other almost entirely via telephone, nearly all their conversations arguments over her expenditures. Ida’s in-person interactions are almost all with friendly sales clerks at dress shops or furniture stores or phone vendors (all played marvelously by the two other cast members, Marinda Anderson and Pun Bandhu) – which helps explain why she spends money she doesn’t have. If there is any sense of forward motion in the play, it is not in their relationship, but in her physical and mental deterioration.
There is one very funny scene where the son, in order to check his mother’s account online, answers increasingly personal questions from the bank – from “In what city was your father born?” to “What did Ida and Erwin eat before conceiving you?” etc.
But in a family drama, even one about familial alienation, one yearns for some family interaction. The Treasurer seems to be deliberately keeping its family characters at a distance from one another. Even his two brothers are just voices off-stage. That distance is emphasized by Laura Jellinek’s off-putting set, which felt unfinished (perhaps meant as a metaphor for their unfinished relationship) and which too often blocked my view of the performers (which may have been a metaphor too, but one I didn’t welcome.)
With nowhere else to go, the playwright mixes in a scene or two that mix middlebrow philosophizing with sci-fi. He even gives himself something of a cameo, one that tacitly acknowledges the challenge of his undertaking: “My son called this morning and asked if he could write a play about my mom…And then my son said it’s about your relationship to her and I said write anything under The Sun…I don’t normally talk much in groups so good luck making me a character.”
The Treasurer is on stage at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, New York. N.Y. 10036)
The Treasurer by Max Posner, directed by David Cromer, set design by Laura Jellinek, costume design by David Hyman, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, projection design by Lucy Mackinnon Cast: Marinda Anderson as Allen / Others, Pun Bandhu as Jeremy / Others, Deanna Dunagan as Ida Armstrong, Peter Friedman as The Son . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandel.