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Chasing Manet

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lynn Cohen and Jane Alexander
Photo by James Leynse.

It's turning out to be a bad theatre year for a certain art movement. First came Impressionism, Michael Jacobs's stiff and spotty tribute to the gallery-hanging pretentiousness. Now there's Chasing Manet, Tina Howe's puerile palette cleanser at Primary Stages, to further explore the school of its title character, Degas, C├ęzanne, Renoir, and others who hardly deserve the dubious honor.

If all Chasing Manet did were skewer their paintings, or even their creators, it probably would - like Jacobs's play - largely escape notice. But both the play and Michael Wilson's hopeless production drag American health care, buddy films, the elderly, and some excellent actors - Jane Alexander, Vanessa Aspillaga, Julie Halston, and David Margulies - along with them off the cliff of common sense and good taste.

That's much harder to forget and forgive, especially since it's in service of so little. In the mid 1980s, Renowned artist Catherine Sargent (Alexander), a cousin of John Singer Sargent, has been placed into an old-age home because she's legally blind and her son is too consumed with his university gig to pay attention to her. Catherine's roommate is Rennie Waltzer (Lynn Cohen), who essentially lost her mind when her husband died and is no longer able to recognize where she is or who she's with at any given moment. Together, they plan to break out of the Mount Airy Nursing Home and sail to Europe on the QE2 so Catherine can be with her prized paintings one last time.

Their story is dotted with "atmospheric" scenes depicting both visitors and other residents, the former group looking like refugees from a Palm Beach community theatre production of Lost in Yonkers, the latter behaving like Tourette's-addled toddlers, and all played by the same unfortunate performers. Halston is both an ancient crone with overmoussed hair and a bad attitude and Rennie's daughter with overstyled hair and an indifferent attitude. Jack Gilpin plays Catherine's work-obsessed son, Royal, and a sexually obsessed foil for the women. Everyone is overseen by the hospital administrators (Aspillaga and Rob Riley), who don't want to be there, are secretly in love with each other, and play an oddly active role in Catherine and Rennie's escape plot.

Howe undoubtedly intended the play to be a loving tribute to the smile-worthy whims of the aged, to prove that the vivacity, resourcefulness, and world-changing bravura Manet captured in his scandalous 1863 "Luncheon on the Grass" - which depicts a nude woman seated in a park with two fully clothed men, and a copy of which holds pride of place above Catherine's bed - need not be confined strictly to the young. But the overall effect is one that's far less inspirational than it is crass, grating, and downright mean-spirited.

Aspillaga's and Riley's characters are rampantly indifferent, the assorted seniors are more like on-the-lam Bellevue inmates than fading octogenarians, and Catherine is so bitchy and Rennie so one-note annoying that they don't ease the absorption of all the snivelingly facile characterizations and story half-twists. The use of too-young and too-vibrant actors as Catherine and Rennie's demented floormates is always belittling and usually insulting. And perhaps you're not supposed to approve of one of the orderlies enabling a getaway attempt or a diversionary act of arson, yet both are presented as positive acts that are somehow less cruel than Royal's renunciation of his mother - they're even treated so lightly it seems they Howe and Wilson intended them to be comic.

If not for Alexander, there would be nothing appealing about this show. But, unlike everyone else onstage, she does occasionally evince vague hints of maturity, and brings a focused intelligence and lets you observe the faint wisps of torment that drive Catherine. The woman is literally and figuratively haunted by nightmares of the glorious past that's now well behind her, and Alexander shows you every bit of the toll it's taking on her, as well as the relish and regret her decades of action and inaction have caused her. Hers is quietly beautiful work in a show that rewards neither the quietest nor the most beautiful in anything.

Nothing else approaches Alexander's accomplishment - which is unsurprising in a play whose biggest joke is referring to stool softener as "the most important thing of all" - but David Margulies makes one game attempt. He plays the most ancient and incomprehensible of Mount Airy's inhabitants, and early in the second act his character sets aside his senility long enough to recount the vivid almost-dream in which he uncovered the meaning of life. Margulies utters the speech so simply and so honestly that he unites you with him in his fleeting recollection of perfect, pastoral clarity. His character needs the respite from his loud, ugly, and personally repugnant surroundings. By that time in Chasing Manet, so do you.

Chasing Manet
Through May 2
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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