Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Treasurer

There is a certain gravitas that automatically attaches to a play about dementia starring Deanna Dunagan and Peter Friedman and produced at Playwrights Horizons. Because of this gravitas, it can take a while to realize that there is very little there there.

Max Posner's play, as directed by David Cromer, has a certain power as any play about dementia must. Yet it distances itself from truly engaging the audience by having few face-to-face encounters (the play largely consists of phone calls), by using a cold and unattractive set, and by failing to establish the characters' personalities. The two main characters are difficult (her) and controlling and angry (him), and that's as far as it goes. Dunagan and Friedman do much to provide complexity and humanity, but the play limits their ability to draw truly human characters. The other characters barely exist.

It is interesting to compare this show to Mary Jane (review here), currently at the New York Theatre Workshop. Mary Jane's depth, compassion, and strength seem almost magical; most people (myself included) would be highly unlikely to grasp its subtleties by reading the script. But with the alchemy of Amy Herzog's writing, Anne Kaufmann's directing, and a kick-ass cast, a whole world comes to life. The world of The Treasurer, in contrast, is flat. I compare the two since both rely a lot on subtext, but Mary Jane earns every moment, where The Treasurer relies on a sense of its own importance, and little more. (When the show ended, I turned to my friend and said, "This play is nowhere as good as it thinks it is." And the more I think about it, the less impressed I am.)

To give a sense of where The Treasurer fails, consider the two monologues that bookend the play. In both cases, the son (Friedman) speaks directly to the audience. At the start, he tells us he is riding a bicycle and talks about how he's eventually probably going to hell, even though he doesn't believe in hell; about his wife's friendship with her hairdresser, who turns out to be a Christian; about his mother and how she abandoned the family when he was only 13; and about how his son wants to write a play (this play) about the mother. It's pretty interesting, and Friedman is so damn good that he makes it fly. And it certainly sets some high goals, suggesting that the play will be about little less than the meaning of life.

And then, 80-something minutes later, comes the closing monologue, as the son is on the elevator to hell. It's interspersed with a conversation with the elevator's other passenger, who turns out to be the husband of the son's wife's hairdresser. They talk about hell and why one would choose to go there. The conversation and the monologue go on for quite a while, not adding up to much. Then the play closes with the son talking about his son, on the computer trying to get into an account and answering the question, “In what city was your father born?" He talks about how much his son will love him as he answers, "Albany."

Since this occurs at the very end, it's supposed to have a definite significance, I guess, but what does it mean? I think rather than being meaningful for the audience, it's meaningful for the playwright, who seems to be the son in question. (My personal response was that it's just not a good idea to end a play with the word "Albany.")

[no more spoilers]
The script of The Treasurer starts with this quotation:
Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him to throw away the anger of all his bereavements. Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away. Anne Carson Tragedy: A Curious Art Form
There is more energy and emotion in that paragraph than in the entire play it introduces.

Wendy Caster
(4th row; taken by a friend)

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