Review - Chasing Manet: Sail Away

I'm assuming that whatever Tina Howe is trying to get across in Chasing Manet, her disappointing new play receiving a well-acted mounting by Primary Stages, is contained in a lengthy speech Jane Alexander delivers early in the first act.

Alexander plays Catherine Sargent, a fictional cousin of John Singer Sargent and an accomplished painter in her own right. Nearing blindness, her son Royal (Jack Gilpin) has set her up in a Riverdale nursing home where she seems to be the only resident with her mental facilities fully functioning.

While trying to get some sleep, her roommate's visiting family members notice the print of Manet's Luncheon on the Grass hanging over her bed and loudly discuss their confusion between Manet and Monet. No doubt a little miffed by both their ignorance and volume, Catherine sits up in her bed and indignantly explains that the painting caused riots when it was first displayed. The controversy wasn't over its depiction of a nude woman, but rather because Manet placed her in an unrealistic setting; casually sitting in a wooded park beside a pair of fully clothed men. As Catherine educates her unwelcome visitors on how the artist shocked his community by presenting something unremarkable in an unrealistic surrounding, Alexander deftly hints at her character's sadness in no longer being surrounded by cultural peers who wouldn't need such things explained to them. It's the first real attention-grabbing moment of the production, but the strong theme expressed is never approached satisfactorily.

No doubt the wheelchairs hanging in the air over Tony Straiges' furnished room set, which is appropriately colored in calming shades of beige and tan, are meant to be as unrealistic as the nude woman in Manet's park. The same could be said of an unexpected autobiographical second act speech, delivered with warm simplicity by the fine veteran actor David Margulies. Perhaps that was also the point behind a scene where wheelchair-bound residents who do not display total awareness of their surroundings nevertheless toss a beach ball to one another as physical therapy with impressive accuracy and dexterity.

But Howe seems more concerned with her lightweight plot; a buddy caper where Catherine and her new roomie, Rennie (Lynn Cohen) book passage on the QE2 and plan to escape the place "where people go to die" for the more civilized surroundings of Paris. It's Catherine who does all the plotting, actually, because Rennie has been living delusionally through her memories since her husband's passing. The playwright and director Michael Wilson draw a decent number of laughs from the contrast of Catherine's caustic personality with Rennie's sweet innocence, but there's a clear lack of consistency of style as the silly humor of the piece (jokes about stool softener?) doesn't seem to belong in the same play as the more serious moments.

Still, Jane Alexander brings textures to Catherine's thirst for company that can understand her, not just praise her work, that do not show up anywhere else in the text or performances. Cohen is certainly appealing enough but she has little more than one note to play. Likewise for the rest of the company. There's potential in the Gilpin's Royal, a Columbia professor seen as an underachiever by his mom, but their relationship is left unexplored after the opening scene, leaving him to double as a lecherous resident of the facility who communicates mostly with leering faces. Vanessa Aspillaga and Rob Riley are both convincing as overworked caregivers required to put on pleasant, cheerful voices all day, but the best bit of authenticity comes from the performance of Julie Halston. When not playing Rennie's attentive daughter, Halston appears as a wheelchair-bound resident who communicates with harsh and abrasive shrieks that might seem overdone on stage but are actually quite realistic and a bit scary to witness in real life. While the number of nursing home residents who behave that way are certainly in the minority, Halston's animated performance is what brings Chasing Manet closest to reality.

Photos by James Leynse: Top: Jane Alexander; Bottom: Lynn Cohen and Jane Alexander

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