Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

The Velocity of Autumn

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 21, 2014

The Velocity of Autumn by Eric Coble. Directed by Molly Smith. Scenic design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Rui Rita. Sound design by Darron L. West. Cast: Estelle Parsons, Stephen Spinella.
Theatre: Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Schedule: Tues 7 pm, Wed 2 pm, Wed 7:30 pm, Th 7 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm
Tickets: Telecharge

Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella
Photo by Joan Marcus

One of Anton Chekhov's most widely cited rules about writing concerns waste: If you're going to show a rifle when the curtain goes up, you'd better have fired it by the time the curtain comes down again. This is not a dictum Eric Coble has followed with his play The Velocity of Autumn: When we first glimpse the stage of the Booth, it's littered with Molotov cocktails that suggest fiery conflagrations to come. If no one expects either Coble or director Molly Smith to literally set the theater aflame, their dramatic equivalents would suffice just fine. But despite what should be the spark-emitting two-person cast of Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella, there are just as few explosions of that nature.

For what it's worth, all those makeshift bombs are supposed to represent desperation. Alexandra (Parsons) has holed herself up in her outer-borough brownstone, barricaded the door, and threatened to blow the building sky-high, much to the consternation of her children. Only one of them, though, is willing to climb up the tree that leads to the only window mom couldn't lock: Chris (Spinella), her oldest and farthest-flung, who's returned to New York after spending many years out west and is Alexandra's best hope. That's because he's an artist just like her, though he hasn't been working much lately, and has a habit of roaming when and where he wants rather than putting down stakes.

The commonality that especially unites them in this case, though, is a distaste of aging. She's 79 and beginning to feel it, unable to go to the subway or the grocery store without assistance, a lot of trouble, or both; and he's approaching 50 with the realization that his selfish, itinerant lifestyle hasn't don't much to ensure a legacy. One way or another, they're going out—of the building, or life—together.

I'd love to be able to report that there's something—anything—more to The Velocity of Autumn than this, but Coble really has thrown together just an "old age isn't much fun" play that looks and behaves far creakier than Alexandra. There are only two conceivable endings to this scenario, and one may more or less be thrown out immediately, so once it's clear where Coble is going there isn't much to do but wait for the ride to the conclude. And with no daring plotting or unpredictable character writing along the way, it doesn't take long for you to conclude that you could probably make Chris's Phoenix–to–New York jaunt in less time.

Coble has concocted one unique exchange, in which Alexandra informs Chris that his now-deceased father viewed Chris's being gay much the way he did gorgonzola:

"So my being gay was like distasteful cheese to him," Chris ponders as Spinella's face attempts to reconcile anger, bemusement, and disbelief.

"I'd say so, yes," comes Alexandra's matter-of-fact reply.

Chris says, "I have no idea how to respond to that."

Neither do we, but it's at least a departure from Coble's otherwise schematic structuring, which is dependent on hoary elements such as ringing phones to nudge along the action, an eye-rolling reversal near the climax (you'll never guess who encourages Alexandra to actually light the cocktails!), and two teary speeches in which Chris circuitously meditates on his own personal experiences with the brevity of life.

That stuff is meat for Spinella, of course, and he bites into it with gusto, commanding the audience to quiet so he can get out lines like "Heaven, Hell, Courage, Fear, the four seasons, the four winds, four ages... all of it in balance, all of it right" and "She made sure this woman had someone with her, someone who loved her, someone to hold her when she died. And I just stood there," and use them to make the cipher-like Chris into a credible human being. He succeeds, finding something of a real man beneath Linda Cho's post-hippy costumes and the below-shoulder-length gray Berkeley-professor wig he's wearing, though there's forever an air of 1960s roadkill about him that does little to convince us that Chris is the real stabilizing anchor in Alexandra's life.

Parsons has noticeably less to do, actually, though she accomplishes well enough her main chore of wavering between crazy and addled and at times she drops her bulletproof outer shell to give a potent glimpse of the terrified soul beneath the declining exterior. But she, too, looks like a Haight-Ashbury refugee, wearing a translucent flowered kimono that shrieks "free spirit" more than "independent thinker," let alone "brilliant painter facing the ravages of time." It doesn't help that Parsons, who is 86, looks spry, connected, and a decade or two younger, which makes it even more difficult to believe that Alexandra is all but waiting on the doorstep of the inevitable.

Smith's simple, declarative direction, Eugene Lee's spare-but-solid apartment set, and Rui Rita's sensitive lights do what they can to provide additional shading, but it's not something Coble has much use for. This is a simple play pondering simple matters, and there's not much point in digging deep than there is ironing out too many wrinkles of the plot. For example, the NYPD, of all police forces, isn't equipped to deal with amateur bomb threats? From grandmothers? In residential Brooklyn? And they would put up with a decades-absent son as mediator even after he threatens his siblings, and, in fact, the whole block?

Marveling in the thread-thin ties that bind Alexandra and Chris, even after many years of strife, is intended to be enough, and if The Velocity of Autumn aimed its sights differently, with two actors of this caliber it might be. But if Coble does indeed have something worthwhile to say about how we can and should approach death, such insights never kindle here. What we get inside is a kind of writing that was getting on in years when Chekhov was young, and does less to impart identifiable new heat than it does to amplify the air's already significant chill.

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