The Oldsmobiles may take place on New York’s Manhattan Bridge, but it has nothing to do with cars. Instead, journalist-playwright Roger Rosenblatt’s slight, two-character comedy at The Flea looks at a married couple in their twilight years who have decided to jump into the East River before their bodies – and, perhaps, minds – begin to betray them. Yet, when dealing with two characters (literally) on the edge, it’s best for their play to have some as well. Oldsmobiles is a comedy, but it is hard to tell exactly where Rosenblatt, whose work also includes the eccentric Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos, intends for his play to fall on the humor spectrum. Is this merely dry humor, or is it sentimental? Is it a dark comedy, or something more absurd, along the lines of David Lindsay-Abaire? His choices render the play safe and rather hollow, leaving it to director Jim Simpson, The Flea’s founder and artistic director, and his winning cast to shade in some necessary humanity and provide it with some bite.
Nonetheless, Oldsmobiles engenders some additional questions from the onset that linger beyond the show’s curtain call. For instance, though the audience sees only the couple, the Oldsmobiles themselves have opted to turn their demise into a media free-for-all, having contacted the press to alert them to their imminent double suicide. Why would such a seemingly low-maintenance couple turn a personal decision into such a circus? Such commentary about the media’s role in tragedy would likely feel out of place, not to mention redundant in this play.
Not that Rosenblatt even has time to shoehorn that in his barely hour-long play. Instead, we watch as the couple, smartly played by Richard Masur and Alice Playten, snack and reminisce on the bridge as reports and morbid onlookers (including a school field trip) gather below. But their conversation sounds largely inauthentic. They discuss how they met (as Olympic athletes in 1964) and where their children live (or think they do), but these are conversations that couples with the intimacy of decades together don’t need to have; they’re expository, meant to give the audience information, but done in an inelegant way.
These conversations also beget another question. At times, both husband and wife (referred to in the script only as “He” and “She”) have apparent lapses in memory. He forgets that he is retired and misremembers words; She forgets that her son is married. Is this supposed to be a cute gambit? An inside joke the two play on each other? Or is it the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease, a term brought up once but dismissed instantly? Treating that idea with short shrift is a mistake; if it has played a role in their decision to end their lives, that needs to be fleshed out. It also alters the show’s tone, which works best at its more darkly comical (case in point: their stunt draws such a crowd of boats in the water that they run out of river into which they can plunge).
Something unquestionable in Oldsmobiles is that both actors breathe an enormous amount of believability into their roles and their relationship with each other. Masur underplays his part; one gets the impression that there is real frustration underlying his choices, even if we never learn the source. Playten, meanwhile, walks a tougher tightrope, since her character is the one less convinced their choice is the right one. Regardless of Rosenblatt’s material, though, the two are always convincing as a perfect fit of a couple.
I credit Simpson with a large degree of that. His direction is a case of both sense and sensibility. He steers Oldsmobiles clear of melodrama while never ignoring the fact that these are dignified human beings who have made a choice, even if the audience questions how careful their contemplation has been. Jerad Schomer’s smart set, simulating the bridge, also deserves mention.
Oldsmobiles would function better as part of a bigger piece. I would rather see it as one of several segments in a review of Rosenblatt’s oddball work. That way, I would be able to gain a greater understanding of his tone and diversity as a playwright and clarify this view from the bridge.