The Velocity of Autumn By Eric Coble Directed by Molly Smith; At Arena Stage to Oct. 20 Measure for Measure By William Shakespeare Directed by Jonathan Munby; Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre to Oct. 27 A supposedly New York-bound drama struggling to find its way, and a measured Measure

Brooklyn Codger: A son attempts to talk down his armed mom.

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

Moral Exam: A man gives in to the vices he hopes to quash.

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.

Our Readers Say

Agree with the review for Measure- raunchy and hilarious, but with impactful, heartfelt performances from Isabella and Angelo. There was a bit of a slog in that final scene though the guy playing Lucio got great laughs; as did the Duke with his asking for Isabella's hand in marriage. Do feel you missed the boat on not heaping some praise on the actor that played Pompey- Chris Genbach. Seen him in a few things now- Mr. Burns at Woolly Mammoth and Henry V at Folger Shakespeare Theatre- always different and exciting. So roguish and funny in this!
I'm disappointed with your review of Velocity. I feel like we were watching two different plays. You were looking for some sort of formula drama, I was was enjoying theater and acting and ideas; and important ideas at that. I found your need to use the phrase "that it ain't", more telling about you and your perspective than the rest of the review. That's a phrase I'd never use in a professional review and that is probably the difference between why I thought this was a compelling work of art and you didn't. To each his own, but the audience I was in was moved to a standing ovation, as was I.
I went to this production and thought it was appalling and didn't stay to see the whole thing. My poor father and mother were subjected to the disturbing opening scene which was NOT Shakespeare - in their 80's they were utterly confused and shocked with the males kissing one another and the nudity.. it was weird and awful for them... and it wasn't until they fled the theater that it suddenly became Shakespeare - after 20 minutes of 'cabaret' - They were not warned at all. It was a horrible experience for them as they had held the DC Shakespeare company in high esteem for decades. nuff said. They were denied refunds since they have season tickets which led to more confusion for them in this morbid world we live in.
Measure for Measure is a play outwardly concerned with sex and the law, and, more internally, with the relationship of the earthly and divine concepts of justice and mercy, respectively. It is also a play in which lack of true self-knowledge underlies the three central characters: Angelo, Isabella and the Duke.

While I liked much of this production's conceptual aspects, i found two of the performances a bit two-dimensional. Scott Parkinson's bureaucratic, repressed Angelo, if lacking in danger, came into its own in the play's second half when Angelo is struck with remorse and self-loathing. But there is a fundamental depth of feeling missing from this production, nowhere more lacking than in Miriam Silverman's no-nonsense, rather stolid Isabella. Her plea for her brother's life had none of the desperation or passion of Juliet Stevenson in a wonderful, Mozartian take on M for M done by the RSC some years ago. The scene in which Isabella tells Claudio of her encounter with Angelo and his insistence she submit to rape went nowhere, Claudio's Hamlet-like speech on death reliant on shouting rather than building to crescendo. I got no sense from either actor of immediacy or terror. On the up side, Cameron Folmar handles verse handles verse better than any actor I have hitherto seen on this stage, and his effete Lucio is, yes, vulgar, but quite a neat and funny interpretation -- as if Clifton Webb's younger brother had cheekily strolled onto the Lansburgh stage. Natacia Diaz' luminous, depressed Mariana is one of the best performances of the night, and one of the most interestingly thought out.

But, at the center of the play is Duke Vincentio, the veiled "duke of dark corners" who steers the action from start to finish, and here an actor needs to convey the Duke's introspection and turmoil or his actions simply come across as vexing.I just didn't get the sense of awakening self-knowledge or inner conflict in this performance.

Having said all that, I did think that there was a good deal of intelligence to Mundy's reading of the play, and it is well worth seeing.

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