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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

By Elyse Sommer

I'm supposed to leave you! I'm the only one in your life who's actually supposed to leave you. --- Matt to his too controlling and possessive mother.

J. Smith-Cameron
J. Smith-Cameron
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
How do you avoid a concerted audience yawn at the prospect of watching yet another family trot out its dysfunction? Step one: Pray that your fictional family will be portrayed by fabulous actors. Step two: Try working out your family's very real problems with a fantastical twist so that it becomes a modern fable instead of a tired old virtual reality show.

In the case of Pen, a new play at Playwright Horizons' Peter Jay Sharpe Theater, score one for those prayers for a fabulous cast. Like David Marshall Grant's two previous plays this one is blessed to have J. Smith-Cameron to play Helen, an embittered discarded wife and controlling mother and Reed Birney as Jerry a psychologist who would do well to heed Luke's advice, "physician heal thyself. " Dan McCabe holds his own as Matt, the teen aged son who is the human Ping-Pong ball in his parents' marital game playing -- a game that reached a turning point when multiple sclerosis made Helen wheelchair bound.

While Helen's illness is in itself a poignant twist to this bitter aftermath of a marriage gone sour and the struggle to let go, it's the fantastical twist that the playwright has concocted that engages us throughout the two hour play. That twist revolves around a zero gravity pen developed by NASA which enables Helen to do her crossword puzzles lying down. This gadget not only serves to symbolize her compulsive need to hold onto everything (including her ultra-liberal convictions) and everyone important to her, but as a sort of magic wand to allow a Cinderella-like escape from the harsh reality of her life.

If Playwright Horizons' program included the Sigmund Freud quote used to introduce the script -- "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" -- the audience would soon recognize it as an omen that this is no Cinderella fairy tale. The pen from which the play derives its title as well as its numerous symbolism fraught nuances, does have enough ink to sign Matt's ticket of escape from the Long Island home that has him penned (play on title intentional) in by his mother's neediness and its temporary displacement. It also paves the way for Helen to miraculously rise from her wheelchair. But there's not enough fuel to allow her to permanently trade in that wheelchair for a pumpkin coach and so, to paraphrase the above mentioned Freud quote, eventually, " a pen is just a pen."

Since your ability to let yourself get caught up in this fable depends on not knowing too many plot details, here's a non-spoiler summary: As the play opens Helen and Jerry have already been divorced long enough for Jerry to be on the verge of marrying his much younger girl friend who is a WASP (as was his mother) and not as out front with her feelings as the Jewish Helen. Jerry's being half-Jewish is one aspect of the duality that makes him a compex character: part of him a weak husband, unhelpful father and psychobabbling shrink; another part really caring enough to want to alleviate the hurt he's inflicted on his wife and also to be closer to his son.

Helen, who's clearly never been an easy woman to live with, is angry and determined not to lose her son as she's lost her husband. At the moment that means she must steer him to go to Stony Brook, a close to home college even though he's smart enough to have a wider choice. This prompts Jerry to persuade Matt to secretly apply to his own alma mater in California. His motivation is altruistic in that he wants to make up for having trapped Matt into being his mother's caretaker but is also a selfish desire to be closer to him when he moves to California with his soon-to-be wife. In short, Jerry is no more following the theory espoused in his pop psychology book that people should own their own lives, as Helen is, and Matt's petty thievery can be seen as an attempt to steal back the freedom to grow into maturity on his own that both parents are short stopping.

The first act ends with a dramatic lead-in to the play's fantastical detour which also happens to be Pen's most emotionally real and moving scene -- no small measure due to Smith-Cameron and Redd Birney's extraordinarily touching performances. In this beautifully written, rueful encounter of two people who were unable to sustain a once loving relationship, Smith-Cameron manages to combine Marilyn Monroe-like vulnerability with elements of her funny Alexa Vere de Veer in Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown. Birney, too drunk to see beyond her blonde curls and dark glasses, is equally multi-dimensional.

Scenic designer Robin Vest has devised an effective dual sliding set -- the main set a suburban living room that is large but feels small and confining. When the living room slides to the rear of the stage, a second restaurant/bar set slides forth horizontally.

Director Will Frears has wisely left it to these fine actors to extract every nuance from their characters so that we remain interested in them and understand that as that "magic" pen like Freud's cigar is just a pen, so Helen and Jerry are struggling with another maxim quoted at the beginning of the script, this one from Karl Marx : "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

Current Events

Playwright: David Marshall Grant
Directed by Will Frears
Cast: J. Smith-Cameron (Helen), Dan McCabe (Matt) and Reed Birney (Jerry)
Set Design: Robin Vest
Costume Design: Jenny Mannis,
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards
Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Running time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theate, 416 West 42nd Street.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2:00 & 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2:00 & 7:00 PM.
From 3/23/06 to 4/15/06; opening 4/0306
Tickets: $45
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 1st performance
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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