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The Commons of Pensacola

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker joined by Nilaja Sun, Zoe Levin, and Ali Marsh
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Whenever a financier is caught committing some multi-billion-dollar crime, you hear plenty about the innocent strangers he dragged down into the mud of destitution, and certainly there's plenty of drama in those stories. But Amanda Peet's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, The Commons of Pensacola, spins the scenario in the direction of the family he left behind, and how they're coping (or not) with falling from the top 0.001% to the bottom 0.001% as the result of one conviction.

Your gut instinct may be to not have sympathy for these people. After all, didn't they benefit from decades of illegal cash? And, on some level, didn't they know what was going on? But Peet—yes, the film and TV actress (though she's done theatre, too)—leads with these questions and never lets them get ahead of her, which makes her play more compelling, dramatically and emotionally, than you might expect.

The father-felon in the family has been put away, and no one apparently has any of his riches left. Judith (Blythe Danner), his wife, has had to move to a one-bedroom waterfront retirement condo in Florida, with her cash intake and expenditures strictly watched by the authorities. Her daughter, Becca (Sarah Jessica Parker), a once-famous actress on the outs, divides her time between helping mom acclimate and canoodling with her much-younger boyfriend, Gabe (Michael Stahl-David), a self-described "guerilla journalist" who's ascending as quickly as Becca is declining.

Even so, there are few innocents here. Whether Becca and Gabe actually care about Judith, or are merely pretending so they can get famous off the documentary of her life they plan to film, is an open concern. Exactly what Judith did to her other daughter, Ali (Ali Marsh), to open a permanent rift between them is a mystery left hanging over the Thanksgiving dinner she's scheduled to attend tomorrow. And, come to think of it, how is Judith paying the maid, Lorena (Nilaja Sun), who's keeping things clean and organizing Judith's increasingly stringent pill regimen?

These are, admittedly, hardly matters of life and death. But there's sufficient suspense here to start with, and Peet ratchets it up just enough as the fragile framework of these people's lives begins falling apart and leaving them, well, even more common. Tiny occurrences come to mean enormous things, such as a single silent glance between Becca and Ali's daughter, Lizzy (Zoe Levin), that topples the few remaining illusions Becca allows herself; or when you're left on the edge of your seat by one character facing a choice about removing items from the freezer that could have life-or-death consequences.

Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Peet knows what she's doing as a storyteller, and artfully builds up and breaks down plot points and ideas to keep the show consistently lean (though the symbolism of a passing hurricane is perhaps overkill). This gives director Lynne Meadow enough to work with, and she keeps the spirits high and the pacing up throughout (the show runs exactly 80 minutes, not a minute too short or too long). Santo Loquasto's tacky-homey set strikes the right notes, too, especially as lit with a solid tropical flair by Jason Lyons.

Where Peet struggles is with mechanics. Too many of the characters lack detail and drive, though each is profoundly affected by their loss. Worse, there's a pedestrian sound to nearly every line that isn't appropriate for the high-born, or high-looking, people who are so often tasked with speaking; Lizzy's the exception, and her expletive-laced speech comes across as overly adolescent. If you don't exactly anticipate epic sweep, the circumstances would seem to encourage more robust introspection or analysis than you get. And if the lines soared a bit more, the actors might not have to work quite so hard to convince you of the gravity their characters are fighting against.

As such, only three of the performers nail their roles. Danner, looking the picture of too-good-for-the-room elegance in Tom Broecker's intentionally oppressive everyday costumes, paints Judith as a woman so beaten down by society that her capitulation to the ordinary is a retaliation against those who crave something else but won't give her the benefit of the doubt. The exhausted exasperation Marsh depicts is a flawless fit for Ali given her resignation of the role she must play in her family. And Lorena's homespun common sense gives Sun a steady platform for compassion without stretching, which she easily makes the most of.

Though Parker does well at times, particularly in the more despondent final scenes, she too often strains in blending good-naturedness with desperation, which leaves Becca feeling more false than duplicitous. Lizzy, a painfully one-note character who does only one thing of consequence (though it's a biggie), does not blossom under Levin's indifferent portrayal. And though he's an affable onstage presence, Stahl-David imparts no depth whatsoever to Gabe, an underwritten figure who needs an actor to justify the many contradictory actions Peet hasn't in her writing.

The Commons of Pensacola would be stronger if he, and the other characters, were more focused. Still, for a playwriting debut, it's surprisingly fine, and shows that Peet intuitively understands the needs of theatrical narrative in a way that she could easily sharpen and magnify into truly impressive work. She provides plenty of moments that stick with you and leave you pondering your relationship with your own family, as well as the good—and bad—they do. But her greatest accomplishment is in also leaving you wondering, if only for a second, whether you—more than the characters she's created—can really tell one from another.

The Commons of Pensacola
Through January 26
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center between 6th and 7th Avenue
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