Peter Friedman and Deanna Dunagan in ‘The Treasurer.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Dementia may not be contagious but it certainly is universal, as the plethora of plays in recent years about families struggling to deal with their failing parents indicates. The latest treatment of this all-too-common dilemma is Max Posner’s The Treasurer, a semiautobiographical combination of pathos, humor, and surrealism (or, as we say today, magic realism) that works more because of the excellence of its two leading players than anything in the 95-minute play itself.
As the audience waits for the play to start, the Son (Peter Friedman), a middle-aged, Jewish geologist we later learn is called Jacob, casually walks on stage and interrupts the chattering, beginning a monologue during which the house lights gradually dim. Behind him is Laura Jellinek’s nondescript, deliberately unfinished-looking set, expertly lit by Bradley King, designed to accommodate multiple locales; some are indicated specifically, like an unfinished basement office area and a restaurant, some only in your imagination, like a clothing store or a Denver bike lane.
The Son’s commentary tells us he’s riding his bike, his words indicating he’s contemplating possible ways he might die, which he assures us won’t be by suicide; he also reveals his niggling fears about ending up in hell, despite his disbelief in it. The Son, you see, is guilt-ridden because he, along with his two older brothers, has assumed the financial responsibility for their elderly mother, Ida (Tony winner Deanna Dunagan), while resenting every dollar he coughs up.
Ida, who alienated the Son when he was 13 by divorcing his father and marrying another man, an Albany newspaper editor, is both hated and loved by him. A stylish woman (she wears a different outfit—designed by David Hyman—in practically every scene), Ida was once active among Albany’s cultural elite (she socialized with Leonard Bernstein). Now, though, the financial extravagance that spent all of her and her late second husband’s money has put the burden on her children to come to her rescue.
Thus follows what many seniors and soon-to-be seniors will recognize as the familiar pattern of siblings striving to find a pleasant but affordable residence for a declining parent. Ida is one of those parents, however, whose self-centeredness, not to mention her fiscal incompetence, can drive an already resentful child nuts. This is painfully true when, as treasurer, the responsibility the Son must assume for her foolish indulgences is hurting his pocketbook (whose depths we never plumb) and creating friction with his more amenable siblings.
Again, as in so many similar scenarios, Ida is sliding slowly into dementia. At first, she’s simply a slightly dotty lady unable to face the realities of her situation, as when she agrees to donate $3,000 she doesn’t have to a symphony orchestra. As time passes, however, her condition deteriorates, her tics become more alarming, and the word “dementia” bubbles up.
Posner’s episodic structure introduces multiple, sketchily drawn, minor characters, all of them played by two versatile actors, Pam Bandhu and Marinda Anderson, who do what they can to make them interesting. One of Anderson’s characters is the Son’s brother, more heard than seen. I get the cross-gender casting but is it really needed here when, to avoid confusion, the sibling’s gender could as easily have been female?
Instead of creating more face-to-face stage time (instead of phone calls) between the Son and Ida, Posner too often distracts us with tangential dialogue, lengthy pauses, and comically offbeat scenes. One is a satirical sequence, better suited for Saturday Night Live, in which the Son converses with an online banking site that keeps asking increasingly inane personal questions before it allows him to enter the site. The most egregious example comes in the penultimate scene, located on an elevator to hell.
David Cromer’s direction elicits strong, affecting performances but his physical staging raises questions. Seated, as I was, on the audience-left aisle, action on that side of the stage was difficult to see. What’s really annoying, though, is for a director of Cromer’s stature to be unable to avoid bringing on illusion-busting stagehands, headsets and all, to shift furniture and props when less clumsy options are apparent.
Friedman’s honest, emotionally nuanced performance adds another character to his gallery of memorable performances, while Dunagan’s Ida captures, with convincing subtlety, an all-too-recognizable woman in mental and physical decline. The treasure here is their performances, not The Treasurer itself.
Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theatre
424 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 5
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).