nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
April 4, 2009
The lone bits of vibrant color that grace the stark white walls of the nursing home setting of Tina Howe's intermittently charming comedy Chasing Manet come from the painting, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, a work by Edouard Manet that shocked the French public due to the socially improper placement of a nude woman amongst two clothed men as they enjoy a casual picnic together. The painting, which represents freedom of expression and debunking convention, hovers above the bed of Catherine Sargeant, a once-acclaimed Boston-born painter, like a nagging dream. Catherine wants out—not "out" as in death, but out of her geriatric prison, as it were, and to escape to her beloved Paris.
A defiant, pill-spitting rabble-rouser reminiscent of McMurphy from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Catherine feels trapped with no way out. Besides being blind, she's completely alone except for her only son, Royal, who forced her into the nursing home in the first place, and with whom she purposely maintains a strained relationship. Enter Catherine's sunny new roommate, Rennie Waltzer. Confined to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia, Rennie is blissfully unfazed by Catherine's acerbic tongue and the nursing home surroundings. In Rennie's mind, her dead husband Herschel is in front of her, alive and well, the nursing home is a fancy hotel, and the view from her window is a beach one minute, and a lovely park the next. Catherine is at first exasperated by Rennie, but soon sees her as the key to her Parisian escape. The confused, amenable Rennie cheerfully goes along with the idea, and Catherine books a trip to Paris for them both on the QE2. The challenge now—how will they possibly make it out past the watchful eyes of the nursing home's front desk?
Chasing Manet has an inspirational message at its core concerning the potential that lives in us all, no matter what the barriers, to defy expectations and take action to attain our dreams. Unfortunately, though, Howe spends more time weighing the play down in tired jokes and overly-superficial depictions associated with nursing home life at the expense of forwarding the central action. Act Two holds more dramatic tension and original juicy fun as the escape plan moves more front and center. This is also when the play reaches its comedic potential and the essence of its theme is more consistently and effectively articulated. Howe does a nice job keeping you guessing about whether or not the QE2 reservations are, in fact, real, and if the two women will be able to conjure up, and successfully execute, a viable escape plan. The results are a true surprise.
Criticisms aside, what is clear throughout is that Howe has written Chasing Manet with relish, allowing herself to just have a good ol' time. This sense of fun is immediately apparent in the spirited performances of the talented cast, several of whom bounce back and forth between multiple roles. As a mentally impaired resident one minute, and Rennie's conventional New Jersey daughter, Rita, the next, Julie Halston flexes the toned character actress muscles that always make her a treat to watch. Vanessa Aspillaga is also a standout as salt-of-the-earth nurse's aid Esperanza. Aspillaga also plays an exasperated French art teacher, Rennie's daughter-in-law, and one of the other residents. The versatile Jack Gilpin, David Margulies, and Robert Christopher Riley also do triple and quadruple duty as nursing home residents, aids, Rennie's family members, and other varied characters. Lynn Cohen as the dotty Rennie is a loveable dear, and the riveting, statuesque Jane Alexander makes the condescending Catherine relatable and likable. Alexander taps perfectly into Catherine's uniquely ironic sense of humor, especially evidenced in a scene when she makes a hilarious entrance during a group art activity as an infamous character from Greek tragedy.
Director Michael Wilson is successful at keeping the pace moving at a good clip despite inert stretches within the script, and he also does a nice job making the actors' transitions between their various roles both smooth and playful. Design elements are all first-rate, though almost too clean and classy. Tony Straiges's set and Howell Binkley's lighting, for example, tend to suggest more of a pristine sitcom version of a nursing home, rather than the drab, unpleasant environment more typical of the kind of facility that seems to be depicted here.
As it is with an artist's painting style, Chasing Manet and the point of view it offers will resonate with some more than others. The play didn't ultimately affect me in the way I was hoping for, however the joie de vivre that bursts forth from a group of actors as talented as you are likely to see anywhere on a New York stage makes Chasing Manet worth the viewing.