CHASING THE ELUSIVE WITH SOME FLYING DINOSAURS
by Harvey Perr
published April 10, 2009
now playing Off Broadway at 59E59 Theater A
through May 2
“Out. O-U-T. I want
When Catherine utters these words, she (legally blind and clutching onto sleepless sleep, the disturbing memory of her roommate
having died in the middle of the night serving as a reminder that people go to nursery homes to die) means business. Almost everybody else
at Mt. Airy is terminally crazy in one way or another, and when the nurses walk out of a room saying “I love you,” you know that love is
the last thing on their minds. And there’s something about those wheelchairs hanging from the ceiling, casting shadows on the walls which
make them look like geometric patterns from DaVinci’s notebooks which show that Tony Staiges, who designed the set, isn’t fooling around,
Tina Howe’s Chasing Manet means to be an unsettling portrait of life in a nursing
home, but less as social indictment than as the fever dream of an eccentric who wants – with the aid of a roommate whose cheeriness cannot
hide the fact that, with each new morning, she is getting closer and closer to dementia – to get “out,” to escape, to chase the dream that
such subsidized loony bins tend to suppress and stifle.
You feel it when Jane Alexander, her white hair a badge of her age, her eyes darting every which way but where they should be
focused, articulately plows through the madness, her feet as firmly on the ground as gravity allows, holding onto the shreds of her dignity
when she was a matriarchal New England artist of some recognition and stature, knowing it means less and less with the withering of time
and the reality of a form of imprisonment thrust upon her. Ms. Alexander could turn Catherine into a female Lear by sheer dint of
personality and acting force, and almost does.
You feel it when David Margulies, as a patient who pitifully cries out for help no matter what the circumstances are, suddenly
launches into a poetic reverie of how, when he was an archaeologist, he saw, at a dig – and this is an apt metaphor for what Ms. Howe is
aiming for – “flying dinosaurs singing actual lyrics.”
You feel it when Lynn Cohen, as Rennie Waltzer, whose conversations with her dead husband keep her brimming with life, suddenly
starts using the wrong words and her head seems to bob in the air in search of the lost words. Again, Ms. Howe seems to know something very
acute about the behavior of loss in moments like this.
Ms. Howe, in short, expresses a profound affinity for these dinosaurs and their dream of escape, their desire for the kind of
possible adventures that even their visiting relatives, who still have their lives on the outside, have given up on.
But, unfortunately, Ms. Howe doesn’t take these tantalizing ideas and wrap them up into a wholly satisfying play. And her
director, Michael Wilson, hasn’t entirely solved the problem, either. In the end, for example, do Catherine and Rennie really escape? Is it
just an extension of their dreams? Are we to make up our own minds about this? Does Charles, the compassionate attendant, really risk his
job to help them? But the problems start even earlier in the play. It is as if all the interesting things in Ms. Howe’s head got mixed up
with the social indictment Ms. Howe hadn’t intended to write but which has been written so many times by other less imaginative writers.
And, unfortunately, those less imaginative writers had already, albeit unconsciously, turned so many of their observations into clichés. Ms.
Howe seems stuck with them, which does serious damage to the many brilliant (and brilliantly written) ideas that Ms. Howe so valiantly tried
to turn into a very different kind of play.
One would wish, too, that Ms. Howe hadn’t given to Catherine the task of feeding to the audience the difference between Manet and
Monet. I know she knows a lot about art, but I don’t think, under the circumstances, she needs to put her superior knowledge of art on
display. What she wants is “out. O-U-T.” In moments like this, the playwright keeps Catherine in. It’s too bad. There’s a lot that’s
fascinating about Chasing Manet.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com