April 15, 2009

“Chasing Manet” Stumbles on Its Clichés

Maybe graduates of all colleges are the same way, but those of us who went to Sarah Lawrence College tend to be fiercely chauvinistic about the school and about our sister and brother alums. So I went into the 59E59 Theaters ready to cheer for Chasing Manet, the new play written by Tina Howe (Class of 1959) and starring Jane Alexander (Class of ‘61,) even though I’ve never met either woman and both graduated years before I got there. (Click here to read a NY Times story about their 50-year friendship that began at SLC).

And of course I did applaud. Although not as loudly as I thought I would. Chasing Manet tells the story of two octogenarian roommates in a nursing home and their scheme to escape for one final fling in Paris. And despite a few lovely moments, it falls victim to the clichés that so often turn up in plays and movies about old people. Alexander’s character is Catherine Sargent, a bitter Boston Brahmin and a successful painter who was an intimate of intellectuals like André Malraux but a distant mother to her one unhappy son. Her roommate Rennie Waltzer, played by Lynn Cohen, is a lovably addled middle-class Jewish woman who enjoyed a successful marriage and is cherished by her large extended family.

So once again, we’re left with the notion that old people only come in two varieties: crotchety and cute. It also would have been a welcomed change if the WASP had been the warm and cuddly one and the Jew cold and aloof. And haven’t we gotten to the point, three decades after the start of the modern feminist movement, where a woman can be portrayed as having a successful career and being a good mother?

There are small suggestions that Howe’s characters may be more complex than they seem but the play, at least as directed by Michael Wilson, is largely a collection of stereotypes and a cataloging of the indecencies that come with aging. The sounds of moans from other rooms are occasionally audible in the background and from time to time, other characters are wheeled on stage for physical therapy classes, offering up still more clichés: the horny old guy, the crazy old lady, the poor nearly catatonic soul who is already lost to the living.

Alexander, who looks wonderful, is always a pleasure to watch and she seems to delight in portraying a tough dame but also manages to offer an occasional glimpse of the emotional wounds beneath the calluses. Cohen is convincingly sweet but also finds moments of sharp poignancy amidst the funny bits she’s given to play. And the five other actors in the ensemble, each of whom plays multiple roles as family members and nursing home staff, acquit themselves equally well, especially David Margulies in a touching soliloquy that is the play’s best moment.

But I expected more from the author of Painting Churches and Pride’s Crossing, both trenchant explorations of the ways in which we do and don’t change as we move into the final phase of our lives. Perhaps it's because of personal experiences with aging family members or because of my own advancing years but I found it hard to just sit and laugh at Chasing Manet’s old-folks jokes. And I wasn’t the only one. The two middle-aged women sitting on my right left at intermission. Unlike me, they didn't have to worry about being excommunicated from the SLC alumnae association.

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