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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
This season's most newsworthy and successful entry into the Duosphere is of course A Steady Rain with its celebrity duo, Hugh Jackmen and Daniel Craig. And now at the always adventurous favorite of downtown theater goers, the Flea, we have The Oldsmobiles. While the Flea can't accommodate large crowds, its two characters, a suicidal married couple on stage do draw a crowd of onlookers and people determined to stop them.
Reading through the advance promotional copy, The Oldsmobiles, instantly made me think of Winnie and Willie, the two characters in Beckett's Happy Days. As Happy Days was tagged a cheery play but wasn't, so I sensed that the time spent with Rosenblatt's Mr. and Mrs. Oldsmobile would also have more on its mind than a comic New York minute— or, to be specific, 50 minutes.
As it turned out Winnie and Willie were obviously on Mr. Rosenblatt's mind when he created the Oldsmobiles. Unlike Winnie, who's buried in a mound of sand and is thus immobile, both Mr. and Mrs. Oldsmobile, though not young, are mobile enough to have climbed up to their perch on the Manhattan Bridge from which they plan to jump and thus go out at the top of their game. Their name thus alludes to a long gone automobile model and on age and its increasing effect on one's mobility.
You don't have to be a Beckett expert to follow Mr. Rosenblatt's wry rumination on life, aging and death by way of very public double suicide scheme. However, the links to Happy Days are evident the minute the curtain (a painted replica of the Manhattan Bridge with silhouette images of a seated man and woman with their legs dangling over the edge at one side rises) rises to reveal a replica of that section of the bridge with the silhouette figures now a very real couple.
Mr. Oldsmobile has announced the intended suicide to 911 (he feels the Manhattan Bridge could use the publicity since people inclined to jump have always favored the George Washington and Brooklyn Bridge), so while Richard Masur and Alice Playten are the only actors on stage, we hear loudspeaker voices of the crowd and that's gathered at the bottom of the bridge to watch and dissuade them from jumping. The suicidal couple's interchanges with the unseen others tone down the Beckettian darkness and give this piece more of a comic sketch flavor.
Beckett's Winnie chatters endlessly to insulate herself from the harshness of existence and Willie is more or less the someone she hope will be listening and thus not a particularly satisfying role for an actor. Rosenblatt, on the other hand, develops both his characters' personalities. Mr. Oldsmobile contributes more than his share of the chatter — despite his declaration that "life is just chatter to pass the time" It's just one of his negative views of life, especially now that he and his wife have had their "good run" and what lies ahead is not something to hang around for. Since he seems to have some symptoms of Alzheimer's, perhaps there's good cause for his pessimism.
Mrs. Oldsmobile, while not exactly Little Miss Sunshine, has brought along a big black bag (remember the black bag with which Beckett's Winnie constantly busies herself?) with souveniers of their life together which began when they were both Olympic athletes. Though says she brought these mementos "so we could take one last look and toss them in the river," and not as "a life vest," they appear to be a means to keep the chatter going and delay doing what they both agreed was the right thing to do even though they're both just sixty-something. Her use of "sixty-something" triggers one of the many pithy and somewhat argumentative exchanges.
Director Jim Simpson and set designer Jerad Schomer manage to make you feel you're right on that bridge with the Oldsmobiles. With less skilled actors than Masur and Playton to play the ready-set-jump couple and let the fear and despair show through the zinger-style dialogue, Rosenblatt's script could easily stumble into skit territory and, even at just fifty minutes, an over-extended allusionary conceit. No wonder Rosenblatt, best known for his magazine and TV essays and books, has made the Flea his theatrical home (Ashley Montana Goes Ashore In the Caicos. . .or What Am I Doing Here? at the Flea in 2005 and also directed by Simpson).