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A CurtainUp Review
The Commons of Pensacola
By Elyse Sommer
Long before writers began looking for ways to explore the dramatic potential of a Ponzi scheme like the one so infamously perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, Harley Granville Barker wrote the very fine The Voysey Inheritance. It was about a respected British family business forced to reveal its fraudulent activities and the effect on the family that's been living on these illegal profits.
Ms. Peet's play is the third dramatic take-off on the more recent case of financial chicanery that I've seen. Film maker Woodie Allen's Blue Jasmine, his best in years, is an ingenious combination of Blanche DuBois and a famous swindler's wife. ( Review ). Seasoned playwright Lee Blessing's Madoff inspired A User's Guide to Hell (review) was a considerably less than fantastic fantasy. Steven Levenson's The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin (
Amanda Peet's play takes the roman à clev approach of fictionalizing easily identified real people as characters. While not quite as clever as Woody Allen's film, it's an attention holding fledgling effort with a lot more to recommend it than the experienced Lee Blessing's misguided fable.
The names have been changed and characters added. Instead of sons we have daughters. And while there's nothing as gruesome as a suicide, the play's most troubled daughter is in a very bad place in her life. Her TV career is virtually non-existent, her financial situation is desperate and, as it turns out, and she's not especially smart about her relationships with men. These character changes make this as much a mother-daughter relationship problem story as a behind the headlines drama. That said, the play does on the quite obvious takeoff on the Madoff case to give it a gossipy piquancy. Joseph Epstein, author of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, would categorize The Commons. . . as a speculative gossip play, with the main speculation revolving around the question about whether the convicted criminal was able to squirrelaway big chunks of cash that no one has as yet been able to track down. As Epstein makes clear in his analysis of all things falling under the gossip rubric tend to be entertaining whether speculative, false or true. And that's certainly true for this play, especially since it dishes up plenty of cause for more than monetary problems.
Having Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker on board is a big plus in terms of adding star power as well as a nice nostalgic touch (Danner and Parker were both in the original production of A. R. Gurney's Sylvia). Actually, Peet, a movie and TV actress, wrote Commons. . . to create a meaty role for herself to boost her sliding career.
If the role of the down-on-her luck Becca which Peet intended to play sounds a bit autobiographical, the parallel is extremely slight. Peet's career may not be on a roll, but neither is it dead; nor are her finances strained, especially since she's married to Game of Thrones script writer David Benioff. In writing a play for herself she's following a tried and true path, though such "self-employment" plays are usually solos, while Commons. . . calls for a cast of five — with the supporting role of Lorena played by Nilaja Sun whose resume includes a play written about and for herself, No Child .
The fact that Peet decided to give up the role she intended for herself to concentrate on fine tuning her script has been very much part of the advance promotion, some of it a bit silly. Case in point: a Vanity Fair interview with Bennett Marcus that had Peet supposedly "stalking" Sarah Jessica Parker to play the role, not only because she was more of a theatrical ticket selling name but because the choice for the role boiled down there not being that many women who are in their 40s, who are Jewish, and funny, and stage-worthy." Since when do you have to be Jewish to play a Jewish character?
At any rate, Jewish or not, stalked by the playwright or cast through more conventional means, Parker is terrific, as is Blythe Danner and everyone else in the cast. MTC's artistic director Lynne Meadow smoothly and sensitively steers them all in and out of the Judith's Pensacola apartment.
The unit set is aptly designed by Santo Loquasto to evoke a sense of impersonal comfort. The stuck door making the waterfront balcony frustratingly inaccessible symbolizes that there's no getting away from the fallout of the scandal that has divested Judith of all her assets and kept her subject to constant reviews of expenditures by those in charge of settling the claims of her husband's many victims.
The story plays out during several days before Thanksgiving. A time for joyful get-together. But to add to the symbolism of that stuck balcony door, a hurricane brewing outside portends that this less than typical average American family, isn't likely to enjoy a holiday respite from its problem ridden lives.
First to enter the empty apartment are Judith (Danner), a still striking but frail 70-year-old though and Lorena (Nilaja Sun), the middle-aged Jamaican woman she's hired despite her straightened finances to help her cope daily chores and to keep track of the many medications she apparently needs to survive. ( With the two women is Becca (Parker), Judith's 43-year-old daughter who, as her luggage indicates, has just arrived in Florida to spend Thanksgiving with her mother. Becca actually hasn't come by herself but with her latest boyfriend, Gabe (Michael Stahl-David).
When Gabe, an attractive 30-year-old free-lance filmmaker (as he puts it, "a gorilla filmmaker") does arrive Judith welcomes him. But her trouble spotting antenna goes, at first only about the age difference between him and her daughter — and when Gabe spills the beans about his and Becca's plans to boost both their careers (, we see that physical and financial frailty, have not robbed this woman of her fighting spirit.
A guest who Judith is thrilled to see is her granddaughter Lizzie (Zoe Levin). But as Gabe's relationship with Becca sets off well-founded storm signals, Lizzie's presence is a reminder that her mother Ali and Judith have been estranged since her grandfather's imprisonment.
Ali (Ali Marsh) does show up at one point, but I would be a major spoiler to go into much more detail about past secrets that will surface during the hour and twenty minutes or the new problems that lead to a high voltage confrontations. Suffice it to say that Peet is quite adept in juggling the various plot points. Though quite differently and more entertainingly presented, the issues explored are the same Dennis Kelly's Taking Care of Baby that just opened in MTC's smaller, second stage at City Center: the ethics of profiting from other people's tragedy, what to believe or not believe, and how the central players in a tragedy move on with their lives.
Contrary to its billing as a comedy, The Commons of Pensacola is more tragic than comic. However, it moves along at a crisp pace and is buoyed by smart, peppy dialogue. Despite some contrived business involving the lovely Lizzie and a somewhat facile ending, this is a promising debut.