nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 2, 2006
David Marshall Grant's new play Pen, which has just premiered at Playwrights Horizons, examines how much we owe to others. It's a big question, and Grant's exploration of it is often satisfyingly rich and challenging.
He does so, mostly, within the framework of a broken home. Matt, 17, is the only son of divorced parents. His father Jerry, lives in Greenwich Village; he's a psychologist who doesn't spend enough time with Matt and is, in fact, about to remarry. Helen, Matt's mom, has Multiple Sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair. Matt shows signs of being troubled—his grades aren't great, he doesn't seem to have any real friends, and he's been arrested at least one time for shoplifting. But, as we meet him and Helen in the play's opening scene, he appears to be reasonably contented, cheerfully doing all the things for his mother that can't she do for herself (cooking dinner, helping her off with her coat, lifting her out of her chair and onto the couch). There's a compassionate pragmatism at play here rather than resignation. But Matt's situation is about to turn more desperate.
Matt's a high school senior, and he wants to go to college in California. His mother, however, wants him to go to SUNY-Stonybrook, located just a few minutes away from their Long Island home. Matt theorizes that Helen doesn't want him to ever leave; that she needs him to stay with her and care for her. Helen says that she's just thinking about what's best for Matt. Both are right, of course. But Matt's quandary remains central and unresolved: what's his obligation to Helen? Where are the boundaries? When does it stop?
Pen is most interesting, though, when it takes a broader view of these questions. Helen is a great believer in liberal causes. When does her righteousness impede on Matt's (or others') rights? Consider this exchange, brought on when they happen on a TV clip of Bob Hope entertaining troops in Vietnam (Pen is set in 1969).
HELEN: I can't watch this. It's wrong.
MATT: It's hilarious.
HELEN: It's not hilarious. It's wrong. Half those kids are going to be killed tomorrow and he's telling jokes.
MATT: He's a comedian.
HELEN: The Smothers Brothers are comedians. He's a company man.
Later, Helen is able to rationalize hating the car Jerry buys for Matt because it's German and she hasn't forgiven them for the Holocaust yet. She even finds a way to blame Matt, indirectly, for their (presumably black) maid's lack of education and status. She's right, of course; but as Matt explains, "I'm a high school senior. I'm not responsible for our maid's illiteracy." Grant manages a shrewd and subtle examination of social responsibility and its constant companion, hypocrisy, that gives his play real teeth.
What he doesn't manage, unfortunately, is a satisfactory arc for Matt's story. The first act of Pen concludes with a neat twist that I won't reveal here that I didn't find adequately accounted for in Act Two. The second half of the play mostly dispenses with the useful contextualization of Matt and Helen's issues within the larger world beyond them, focusing instead very squarely on Helen's self-actualization. This shift hurts the piece, I think, and it's accompanied by a change in perspective, from Matt's anguished but compassionate eye on two flawed parents to a more objective and adult view of a woman coping with betrayal and illness. Pen begins as a memory play, a worthy successor to coming-of-age plays like The Glass Menagerie and Broadway Bound, but it ends up feeling more like a Movie of the Week.
Nevertheless, there's plenty of food for thought here, as well as more wit, intellect, and compelling entertainment value than a lot of new plays can provide. Will Frears has staged Pen unobtrusively and thoughtfully, and Robin Vest's ingenious set works beautifully to create an appropriate environment for the piece. The three-member cast is flawless: as Helen, J. Smith-Cameron finds all the layers and dimensions of her complicated character, while Reed Birney is a likable heel as Jerry. Anchoring the play is Dan McCabe in a splendidly affecting performance as the conflicted Matt.