Fans of Tina Howe’s work will recognize familiar touchstones in her new play: a preoccupation with Boston WASPs, artists and poets; women of strong convictions; and the thorny relations of parents and children. There’s also her fondness for hats, which goes back to Painting Churches, when Fanny Gardner first appears in a bathrobe and hat; here Jane Alexander assumes an identical ensemble. Alexander plays Catherine Sargent, a cousin of John Singer Sargent and a renowned painter in her own right, who is “legally blind,” a term frequently applied to patients with macular degeneration. Her affliction is not stated, but Catherine describes her vision as “just a bit blurry on some edges,” which fits the bill. Divorced from one of the brahmin Lowells, Catherine has been taken away from her comfortable surroundings in Boston by her son, Royal (Jack Gilpin), a Columbia professor of poetry with a special interest in Yeats. Royal wants her near him, though he rarely visits her, and she abuses him for it.
Catherine’s residence is a nursing home in Riverdale, N.Y., where she encounters a new roommate, Rennie Waltzer (Lynn Cohen). Rennie is a fizzy Jewish woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and in need of a wheelchair or walker. As depressed as Catherine is, Rennie is the opposite.
Catherine is a devotée of the painter Manet, and in one of two really engaging moments in the play, she describes why the artist’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe—a reproduction hangs over her bed—is a crucial work in art history: it’s because Manet showed a naked woman sitting on a picnic blanket. “It wasn’t the fact of her nakedness that was so shocking, but its implausibility,” she tells Rennie’s family. “Placing a naked woman in a public place sounded the call for artistic freedom, telling the artist he could paint not only what he wanted, but how.”
It’s a mantra that Howe, who also wrote Coastal Disturbances, Museum, and Pride’s Crossing, might marshal in defense of Chasing Manet, which is rife with implausibility. Anyone familiar with assisted living or a nursing home will find little credibility in director Michael Wilson’s production. Apart from the loud mayhem of the patients’ cries, this facility is so wildly off base as to appear that Wilson and dramaturg Rachel Ely haven’t done any homework.
First off, partial blindness is no reason for Catherine to be in a nursing home. She is mentally sound and no danger to herself, unlike the other inhabitants; she should be in assisted living. Why Royal has put her in a nursing home is not explained. And if she is legally blind, she would have learned to use a cane, yet she doesn’t use one and none is on stage. Even more absurd is that medicine, including sleeping pills, is left on side tables in easy reach of the blind woman and the Alzheimer’s victim. This facility is bucking to have its license revoked—if it has one!
Howe’s plot and tone combine One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Golden Girls, with Cohen playing a role akin to the dotty Sophia in that sitcom, and Catherine as an acid Beatrice Arthur. Rennie is full of malapropisms—“division” for “diversion,” “pottery” for “poetry”—and she grins and goes off on loopy outbursts. Nevertheless, Catherine hatches a plan with Rennie to escape. They’re going to “chase Manet,” as it were—to do their own thing and head for Paris. One is supposed to cheer their indomitable spirits, but it’s hard when the drama is so contrived.
Then, too, Howe indulges in the facile comic maneuver of having old people swear like today’s teenagers to get a laugh. Catherine calls a “Bronx cheer” vulgar, but moments later is dropping the F-bomb on poor Royal. Catherine rhapsodizes about being caught by her ex-husband in flagrante delicto with a younger art student—classy, isn’t that? And Catherine is also cruel. “Beauty was never your strong suit,” she tells Royal, in one of her offhand observations. By the time Howe has the two senior citizens singing an anthem to stool softener, you’ll be itching for social services to close down this institution.
Alexander understands Catherine’s frustration, restlessness, and indomitability, but the part squanders her talents. Cohen has a field day hamming as the scattered Rennie, yet makes the most of one painful scene when she realizes her husband has died. Other actors assume multiple roles effectively, and David Margulies has the second fine speech, as a silent patient who suddenly snaps into a riveting monologue that reveals him as an archeologist who discovered a mystical treasure in the Fertile Crescent. But there’s very little value in this infertile tale.