Theatre in Review: The Treasurer (Playwrights Horizons)
Max Posner's new play begins with The Son, who will be our host and narrator for the evening. Even before he introduces himself, however, he makes an attention-getting announcement: "In a week, or a decade, or a day, sometime in the future here: I will be in Hell." The reason for his damnation? His mother, of course.
This isn't entirely surprising. Our theatre is loaded with dysfunctional parent-child relationships. Mothers devour their children with affection. Adult offspring are permanently pained by fathers who withheld their approval. The deepest of bonds are impaired by addiction, anger, fear, and disappointment. Even the strongest love between generations can be derailed or deflected or terribly misunderstood; indeed, the sharpest wounds are the result of the most intense feelings. But what happens when the space between mother and son is a great, gnawing gulf of... nothing? This is the question posed by in The Treasurer, in a production that benefits from two of the most unsparing performances to be seen this season.
The Son is a middle-aged geologist from Denver; happily married, a proud father, and reasonably prosperous, he has everything to live for. Then there's Ida, his mother, who, he says, "is impossible, who is beyond selfish, who is the definition of 'delusional'." (Posner has made clear that the play is based on his father and late grandmother.) For starters, when he was fifteen, Ida fled the family home for "the most exciting man in Albany." His father was destroyed, his two brothers scattered off to college. He was left to raise himself. "Poof went our family," he says, adding sadly, "Although, was she ever really there?"
Well, she's here now, and she's promising to become a permanent burden. Ida and her husband spent freely, and now that he is gone, she has a mountain of credit card debt -- and yet she sees no reason to lower her standard of living. In a conference with his siblings, The Son is assigned the role of his mother's fiscal manager -- hence the play's title. By definition, it's a thankless job, especially when his attempts at steering her into a budget-priced retirement home are instantly shot down. Brooking no dissent, Ida insists she must move into the most expensive facility in town. "I'm a Beaverbrook person," she says, by way of explanation. "I've played tennis there." When he acidly notes that Beaverbrook is for women whose late husbands have left them money, she sighs and says, sadly, "I just never expected to live this long." The silence that follows is ripe with the smell of defeat.
So why is The Son hellbound? Because, he says, in words almost never heard in American drama, "I don't love my mother." Ironically, no loving son could be more dutiful: He helps to foot the bill for her overpriced facility. He indulges her wish for a new dog. He watches her spending like a hawk. But, in the darkest corner of his heart, he knows the truth: "I want her to die for practical reasons. I want to never have to fly her out for a visit again. I want to never have the same exact phone call, again and again, and we say nothing new to each other." Ida might recognize the emptiness between them, too, if she ever stopped to consider it.
This strange, sad dance of expired love is given vivid life by Peter Friedman and Deanna Dunagan, under the exacting, pointillist direction of David Cromer. Friedman makes us feel the bind that traps The Son, who feels morally bound to do for a woman who never gave him a serious thought and who accepts every bit of help as her natural right. He also finds the comedy in the siblings' phone confabs, in which they futilely plan to bring Ida's spending to heel. We feel for him when, at long last, he loses control, screaming at Ida for giving three thousand dollars that she doesn't have to the local symphony orchestra, largely because she enjoyed her phone call with a young male telemarketer. He turns an airplane flirtation with a total stranger -- both of them flying home to visit their mothers -- into a touching interlude, rife with unspoken feelings.
Most of us know Deanna Dunagan as the vindictive, pill-popping matriarch of August: Osage County, so it's a shock to encounter her as the chic, shallow Ida. (In her first scene or two, her combination of elegant manners and self-interest reminded me of Mary Beth Peil's priceless turn as Julianna Margulies' steely mother-in-law on the television series The Good Wife.) But Dunagan remorselessly charts Ida's descent into dementia, a scene-by-scene degeneration that is terrible to behold. Dunagan makes clear how Ida, deprived of a husband and some of her more expensive creature comforts, is almost frighteningly at sea. Most of her excessive spending is linked to her habit of chatting up salespeople, because she has no one else to talk to. Her loneliness and failing mental abilities are exposed in an encounter with a clerk at Talbot's (delicately rendered by Marinda Anderson) that turns into a pathetic talking jag. Only a very great actress can reveal a character in all her self-absorption, yet still turn her decline into the stuff of tragedy -- and Dunagan fits the category nicely.
The Treasurer is a singular piece of writing, sometimes totally naturalistic, sometimes informed by quirky, semi-humorous fantasy. It depicts a kind of dramatic stalemate, highlighting both lead characters' mounting feelings of frustration as Ida's mind slips away. At times -- particularly in a satiric sequence focusing on a bank log-on system that poses increasingly invasive questions, or when The Son, apparently consigned to the afterlife, meets a total stranger to whom he has a surprising connection -- the play feels stranded between styles. The same feels true of Laura Jellinek's scenic design, which responds to the need for several locations by creating an almost eerily undecorated raw space. David Hyman's costumes, Bradley King's lighting, and Mikhail Fiksel's sound are all solid contributions, although I'm of two minds about Lucy Mackinnon's projections of family life, as well as the use of a live video feed of Friedman's face in one scene.
Still, by the final scenes, it's easy to feel that Posner has known all along where he is headed and how he wants to get there. (Completing the cast is Pun Bandhu, who offers several sharply etched characters, especially a cozily seductive bedding salesman who has to cope with an incontinent Ida.) For most of the evening, Ida and The Son occupy opposite sides of the stage, communicating only by phone. They finally come together for dinner in a Chinese restaurant, and what a melancholy tableau it is: She, hunched over, barely aware of her surroundings, alternately shoving food into her mouth and muttering commonplaces, and he, irritated, counting the minutes until they can leave. It ends in a strained exchange of "I love yous" that, more than anything else, points not to what was lost between this mother and son, but to what was never allowed to happen. This melancholy, contemplative piece of work concludes by inviting us to consider the sheer evanescence of life, whether happy or sad. The opening of The Treasurer is an act of misdirection: The Son isn't going to hell. He's been there all along. -- David Barbour