Chasing Manet

  • Date:
    April 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall.

    A Review by Tulis McCall.

    My aunt Marylou is very much alive, so I�m not certain how Jane Alexander is channeling her, but she is. You will find her holding court in Chasing Manet at 59 East 59th Street.

    That would be Manet, not Moet with the bubbles, not Monet with the lilies. �douard Manet who was in on the ground floor of Impressionism and who is an inspiration to Catherine Sargent (Jane Alexander), an artist - cousin of John Singer Sargent - who is locked up in an old folks home because she is legally blind and her son doesn�t know what else to do with her. This is, of course, a problem because imagining Jane Alexander locked up anywhere is difficult. After all, Alexander was chair of the NEA from 1993-1997 (when the Congress cut NEA�s funding by nearly 50%) and left Washington with her head still attached. Surely THAT was a feat equal to the challenge of a little old lock-up.

    As well, her roommate Rennie Waltzer (Lynn Cohen) is vibrant and razor sharp even when she is delusional, so the visual on her being exiled to the same nursing home sags a little in the middle.

    The premise here is that Sargent, incarcerated because of her sight, is in every other way healthy. She is unlike any of the other inmates because she is sound of mind and not so bad in body. When her new roommate, Rennie, arrives Sargent sees a way out. Even though Rennie is suffering from dementia, Sargent decides that Rennie will be the eyes and Sargent will be the brains behind the Great Escape. Okay, so WHERE will they go? Oh, I know � how about Paris, and why not take the QE2? It only costs $10,000 for two and Sargent can get her hands on that. Of course Rennie will have to talk her daughter into coughing up her passport, but that�s a detail. So the plan is hatched. The goal is to get to France, go to the Louvre and see Manet�s �Luncheon on the Grass�, the painting of a naked woman lunching in a park with clothed men that set Paris on it�s ear when Manet submitted it to the Paris Salon in 1863.

    Never mind that the two women are on medication. Never mind that one of them needs supervision because she is mentally unstable. Never mind that they have no lodgings once they get there. Never mind the thousand pound gorilla in the living room.

    In her desire to address old age and its complications, Howe has weakened her position and settled for a fairy tale. Instead of focusing, Howe creates a broad playing field and tries to be all things to all people by including a little of everything: Alzheimer�s, Dementia, Turrets etc., bewildered families, resentful parents, dreams deferred and pleasures denied. Howe is not helped by the director, Michael Wilson, who has the cast nearly doing headstands as they change costumes and wigs to play a variety of characters. I don�t know who came up with the wig idea, but it is so not necessary. Everyone in this cast is capable, and we don�t need wigs � a few of them are really stinkers � when the actors change characters. We especially don�t need them on Alexander and Cohen, who have lovely hair of their own that would have done just was well.

    The script isn�t horrible. It�s just not as good as the people delivering it. The entire cast is solid, and each actor has a moment or two to shine. David Marguiles in particular has a marvelous turn reminiscing about archaeology. But it is Alexander and Cohen who are worth the price of admission and then some.

    Though the premise of Chasing Manet is skimpy, we end up rooting for Alexander and Cohen to make it to the boat. Through sheer force of will and skill they convince us what in any other circumstance would be ridiculous � that they will live happily ever after. They are glorious. They transcend the minor problems and make you glad to be in the theatre. It�s that little thing called theatre magic, and these two serve it up with panache.

    Tulis McCall

    What the press had to say.....

    "whimsy-clotted new play" & "the quirks assigned to the characters here all feel preowned (as the car vendors say), as does the gimmick-driven plot."
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "a trivial pursuit."
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "strained dark comedy has its moving moments, but they're often sacrificed in favor of cheap laughs"
    Frank Scheck
    New York Post

    "it is just a mite disappointing to get lemonade from a playwright capable of stronger stuff."
    John Simon

    "a tenderly sad and riotously funny meditation on age, family, and freedom of expression."
    David Sheward
    Back Stage

    "at times disturbing and uneven, yet often very funny."
    Jennifer Farrar
    Associated Press

    "the play falls flat, cut off at the knees by embarrassingly sketchy characterizations and Michael Wilson's tone-deaf direction."
    Sam Thielman