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A Feminine Ending

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gillian Jacobs
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"I have become increasingly aware of the tyranny of gender." Though these words in Sarah Treem's new play A Feminine Ending, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, are uttered barely a minute into this atonal slice of lifelessness, it's instantly clear that little in this evening will eclipse them in terms of either brevity or clarity.

These are qualities that apply to theatre just as they do for symphonies, which is helpful for Amanda, the woman speaking them, because she's not only a gifted oboist but also a symphony composer herself. However, during her opening discussion, it becomes increasingly obvious that the play itself is destined to be increasingly obvious, with everything springing - however uneasily - from that "tyranny of gender."

"It's everywhere," she says of it. "We're obsessed with it. Men and women. Women and men. How they differ. How they fit." Treem and director Blair Brown spend roughly 100 minutes inflating these ideas, but never expanding on them. The result is a living documentary about the minor skirmishes in the gender wars that could put even avid history students to sleep.

That's because the problem Amanda (Gillian Jacobs) is facing is her mid-20s mid-life crisis, something nearly everyone experiences when they discover adulthood isn't all it's cracked up to be. But it's notoriously tricky to dramatize, as the interior confliction and pain are so manufactured that they frequently appear ridiculous when viewed from the outside. And Treem never finds a spark of dramatic necessity in Amanda, 25-going-on-50 and torn between her burgeoning-pop-star boyfriend Jack (Alec Beard) and off-kilter postman Billy (Joe Paulik), to make her an exception.

Instead, she juxtaposes the story of Amanda against that of her parents, who are sharing a real mid-life crisis: Mom Kim (Marsha Mason) is certain that Dad David (Richard Masur) is having an affair, and thus wants to put an end to her marriage of 30 years. A bullet-train-speed guilt trip sends Amanda back to her parents' New Hampshire home, where she learns that she and her mother aren't really that different - Kim could well be Amanda 30 years down the line, and both want to achieve the same thing before they die: "an extraordinary life."

The true meaning of "extraordinary" is open to interpretation, of course, but it gives some much-needed new sheen to the fairly tired story of whether Amanda wants to wed the rich, sexy rock star she'll never sees or the go-nowhere dork who'll be as obsessed with her in adulthood as he was in adolescence. Amanda and Kim's twin journeys to understanding make the last third of the play more powerful than the opening scenes, which are as emotionally listless as they are heavy-handed in their use of musical metaphors.

For example, the action is divided into movements that focus on single aspects of life ranging from fame to true love and independence, but seldom add up to something more than the sum of their parts. Amanda also refers to the oboe, and by extension herself, as "the Hamlet of instruments," though the only real similarly between her and William Shakespeare's great tragic hero is their shared penchant for existential musings. In Amanda, they manifest themselves more as surface-level whining than opining, and force Jacobs into a series of disconnected, over-excited line readings that only rarely hint at the deeper concerns Amanda is letting pound her into powerlessness. Jacobs is far better as the talented little girl adrift in an adult world than as the grown-up struggling to reclaim her childhood, though Amanda can only be believable if she's both in equal measure.

The other characters, more concretely defined, are not so burdened, and the actors generally do better with them. The most consistent is Mason, who almost makes Kim's selfish maternalism work within the overarching context of faded dreams that also informs everything from Brown's tentative staging to Cameron Anderson's incorporeal-dates-reality set. Masur brings too much clinical detachment to David to make him a sympathetic victim of time's erosion of the heart, while Beard is far too tame a personality to convince as a top-40-bound, rock-and-rap heartthrob. Paulik's portrayal of Billy as an abrasive, Asperger Syndrome-suffering societal outcast does not deliver - he's supposed to be from another state of mind, not another planet.

His overshooting humanity is somewhat understandable - one of the play's main points is that men and women tend to speak different languages. This is referenced in the play both in the first scene, when Amanda explains the difference between masculine and feminine beginnings (the former has the stress on the first beat, the latter on the second or third), and the last, when she says the play's title refers to a phrase or movement ending "in an unstressed note or weak cadence." Unfortunately, there are so many of those to be found throughout A Feminine Ending that it too often feels like it's ended before it's even begun.

A Feminine Ending
Through November 11
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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