nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
October 16, 2009
The Oldsmobiles may be the most charming and lighthearted play about suicide you'll ever see.
That's not to say that the versatile Roger Rosenblatt's new entry at the Flea takes its subject matter lightly. While this snappy, one-hour dialogue passes with a steady stream of giggles, profound questions of life, death, marriage, parenthood, technology, and Alec Baldwin pulse beneath the surface.
Unfortunately, Rosenblatt seems to feel as if he must answer each question with a dismissive punch line, a comedic technique that undermines his play's likelihood to stick with its audience much beyond its admittedly pleasant run time. See The Oldsmobiles for its wonderfully ironic twinkle, but don't expect a scintillating conversation afterward.
Mr. and Mrs. Oldsmobile have nothing to complain about. They've reached their 60s in prime physical condition. They occasionally bicker and often forget things, but what married couple doesn't? Their children are gradually settling into their adult lives. Life is ducky.
So what better time to kill themselves? Like two of A.E. Housman's athletes dying young, why not give into the cold logic of ending their lives on top? Why wait for a slow and agonizing journey through old age when they can acknowledge their good ride and call it quits? As Mrs. Oldsmobile keenly observes, "We're living longer, so we're dying longer." Who wants to draw out death?
Taking this revelation to heart, the Oldsmobiles alert the authorities that, for absolutely no reason at all, they will climb to the top of the Manhattan Bridge to plunge to their watery graves. The play's action takes place with the couple perched atop the bridge, reminiscing and snacking while the media storm gathers below. When will they decide to jump? Not, at least, until Mr. Oldsmobile finishes his juice box and peanut butter sandwich.
Rosenblatt's ironic stylistic twist, of course, is that this couple-on-the-precipice speaks with none of the overblown gravity normally merited by such heightened circumstances. Effortlessly played by stage vets Alice Playten and Richard Masur, the Oldsmobiles might as well be watching Jeopardy or driving to the Jersey shore. As the world gathers to witness their fateful decision, the Oldsmobiles watch the world with Saturday morning casualness, confused as to why their choice should spark such a rapt following.
The play certainly works as is, but I kept sensing that Rosenblatt was shying away from the fullest possible gravitas. He seems concerned about weighing down his crisply observed witticisms with emotional earnestness. More often than not, one Oldsmobile's exploration of a deep existential issue is answered either by a tongue-in-cheek interruption from below (see Alec Baldwin) or another Oldsmobile saying, "You're trying to be profound, but you're not." Fair enough, but such a message resonates only so far before we want more.
Masur's affable performance adheres to this pattern of Rosenblatt's writing. Masur is most effective while exchanging neurotic jabs with his partner, but he shies away from potentially powerful moments of tenderness. His choices are a bit too easy.
Playten, on the other hand, delivers a marvelously deft comic performance that hints at the material's unrealized potential. Her Mrs. Oldsmobile is a droll but accommodating good sport. At times she agrees with her husband's determination to end life before it turns sour, and at other times she sees through the absurdity of his distant logic. It's a hilarious and moving pleasure to watch Playten navigate the subtle textures of this confused landscape.
Director Jim Simpson's simple, efficient staging rightly chooses to focus on relationship over distracting technical elements. Likewise, Jerad Schomer's set, which frames the Oldsmobiles in a twilight 3x5 raised above the stage, smartly traps this perplexed couple in a beguiling postcard from the edge.