What might one day be a trenchant black comedy about an aging parent and an alienated child is—in its current incarnation at Arena Stage—two or three fine soliloquies connected by tissue of wanly familiar relationship drama and a dubious conceit. What makes this startling is the volume at which Eric Coble’s big-hearted but uneven one-act The Velocity of Autumn has been noised about as Broadway-ready. That, it sincerely ain’t.
It is, at present, a shaky showcase for two prodigious talents who seem to be still feeling their way around the contours of Coble’s script, which finds a dyspeptic aging artist, Alexandra, barricaded inside the Park Slope brownstone where she and her late husband once raised the family that now wants her out of the place. A danger to herself, she might be, and to others. Certainly she’s willing to threaten to be the latter: At lights-up, she’s sitting in her favorite chair, surrounded by a few dozen homemade Molotov cocktails, having threatened to take the place down to the foundations if the kids don’t leave her in peace.
Into this already unlikely scene comes not a SWAT team or a sniper, as you might reasonably expect in a post-9/11 New York City, but a long-absent son. Chris makes his entrance via the second story, climbing Mom’s favorite tree to access the window he knows she never locks—because reasons, and sentiment, and authorial shorthand for the special connection these two odd birds shared among their larger domestic flock. Having long since fled for the less-pressurized climes of the American West, Chris has been deputized by the sister he still speaks to and the bully of a brother he loathes to talk Mom down.
And man, do they talk. Loudly, tenderly, fondly, abusively, and at length, they talk. Coble’s play is such a writer’s exercise that even several days after the show’s press night, the estimable Estelle Parsons—an Oscar winner for Bonnie and Clyde and beloved by my generation as the title character’s insufferable mother in Roseanne—still seemed to be flailing a bit to keep her lines in order. “But she’s 85,” one might demur. “Cut her some slack.” Done, but the show’s other star, two-time Tony winner Stephen Spinella, also seemed a little bit at sea. And quite frankly, even if that was just acting—one of the characters is showing signs of early dementia, after all—Velocity is still wordy enough that it’s able to cram all the character and situation development I’ve laid out above, plus more, into 95 minutes and still find time to be earnestly, wearingly repetitive.
Those tent-pole speeches, though: You can see why the assembled talents believe in this play. Parsons settles authoritatively and with grace into a long rhapsody on how the experience of life is like the outings she and her son used to take to the Guggenheim Museum, on how—as with the art that approaches and recedes as a gallerygoer walks that spiraling ramp—our ever-changing perspective inflects and informs our understanding of the events and people that come our way, but never stay entirely still. Spinella—he was Prior Walter in the Broadway premiere of the Angels in America plays, so he’s no stranger to heated passions wrapped up in ecstatic arias—does shivery, profoundly anchored justice to an equally hefty moment involving a hideous memory and a sobering arrival at a new measure of self-awareness. Those speeches are lovely things and beautifully handled; they are not, alas, enough to make The Velocity of Autumn feel, for now, like more than a good idea on the way to its eventual form.
Measure for Measure By William Shakespeare Directed by Jonathan Munby; Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre to Oct. 27
You could argue, and some scholar probably has, that Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure never found its ideal shape—but then plays written for a king, about a king, to be performed in front of a king, sometimes require a compromise or three. That’s one argument advanced, in any case, for why this problematic drama of license and limits goes all lickspittle at the end.
To recap: Vienna’s duke, having let his demesne’s strict laws go laxly enforced for a decade, ducks out of town, deputizing the upright Angelo to run things in his absence and suggesting that now’s the time to right the ship of state. Said ship, no surprise, has got hookers and pimps and panderers pretty much hanging from the rigging, so as Angelo sets about cleaning things up, there’s a good bit of public anger. And then, to the surprise of exactly no one who’s ever followed the exploits of your George Rekers or Larry Craigs, the previously righteous Angelo proves susceptible to precisely the lustful excess he’s been charged with prosecuting. (Reality-show pitch: Present a rigid moralist with both the keys to the jailhouse and a desperate nun whose brother faces execution. Watch what happens live.)
The play’s many convolutions—disguises, deceptions, one of those head-scratcher “bed tricks” that make you wonder what exactly they were doing between the sheets in the English Renaissance—will be devoted to exploring how Angelo will reconcile the responsibilities of authority with the realities of human fallibility. Many a red herring will be pursued, but justice, you may be sure, will eventually be served.
Jonathan Munby’s stylish production starts from the premise that the years between World Wars might be an interesting lens through which to look at a Vienna overrun by excess; Weimar-era Germany and the Europe around it were fantastically debauched, right? And the historical queerness of Britain’s King James I—Elizabeth’s heir, and the guy that one version of the Bible is named for—gives the director license to poke around in the shadowy psychology of a duke whose motivations always seem a little murky. So, to shorthand things: a sexually conflicted ruler, his repressed stand-in, and a nun with a brother who can’t keep it in his pants? Dress it up and bring it.
Which is to say I’m on board with the conceit. If anything, I wish Kurt Rhoads were doing more with the duke’s internal upheavals; Munby has given the actor the visible signs of deep-seated psychological conflict (not least a violently aborted encounter with a handsome youth in the decadent cabaret prologue), but the more inward and spiritual manifestations that might convincingly communicate something about the character aren’t registering, at least from Row L. Not a problem, that, for Cameron Folmar, whose command of the language is admirable and whose breath control is positively formidable, but whose foppish vamping as decadent Lucio verges on the vulgar. He’s bigger than the rest of the production, and the rest of the production includes nuns with pasties, Naomi Jacobson as a brothelkeeper, and a Nuremberg-style rally.
Happily there are more honest performances from Avery Clark as the endangered Claudio, Jack Wetherall as the wise ducal advisor Escalus, and Natascia Diaz as the neglected Mariana, whose mournful gravity recalls the shatteringly intense Fosca that Donna Murphy created for Broadway’s original Passion. And at the core of things are two fierce and convicted performances from Miriam Silverman, as a luminous and keen Isabella, and Scott Parkinson, whose whippet-hound Angelo might be one of the most tightly wound characters ever to stalk a Shakespeare Theatre Company stage. (We’ve seen a good bit of Parkinson here in D.C.—in Studio’s An Iliad, at Shakespeare Theatre Company in The Persians and such—but please sir, I want some more.) With these last two superb performers holding the center, Munby’s overflowing Measure may traffic in excess, but it never seems like too much of a wild thing.