By: David Sheward
The characters in Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola are pretty careless. They forget their cellphones and leave condom wrappers and stacks of cash lying around where anyone could find them and advance the plot. That unconvincing looseness is just one of the problems with this featherweight little number from Manhattan Theatre Club, now at the Off-Broadway City Center Stage I. Fortunately, Blythe Danner as a down-on-her-luck matron and Sarah Jessica Parker as her devastated daughter lend their considerable skills to packing meat on the bones of this flimsy carcass.
The paper-thin story takes places in the tiny Florida condo (set designer Santo Loquasto renders the tackiness to perfection) of Judith, the wife of a convicted Bernie Madoff-like financial swindler. It’s Thanksgiving, and she’s being visited by her elder daughter Becca, a failed actor, and Becca’s much-younger boyfriend, Gabe, an investigative journalist. That job description should tell you all you need to know about the oncoming conflict. Becca is hoping to jumpstart her career by co-starring in a reality TV show with her mother, to be produced by Gabe. The gimmick would be to go around begging forgiveness from the victims of Judith’s husband. Also on hand are Ali, Becca’s estranged sister, and Lizzy, Ali’s 16-year-old daughter whose sexual precociousness causes even more complications.
An esteemed actor, Peet gives the cast plenty of histrionic opportunities, particularly Parker as Becca, and the playwright has a few intriguing themes here, such as the conflict between the entitled wealthy and those they take advantage of. But Peet barely scratches the surface, settling for predictable soap opera. We don’t even know if Judith’s husband is in jail or dead, because his fate is never discussed. Plus, Peet has a tendency to go for clichéd dialogue and low-grade humor (she has a fondness for fart jokes). Unfortunately, the comparisons to Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s much richer film on the same subject, are inevitable and unflattering.
MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow gives the material the sharpest staging she can muster, avoiding the broadness that hampers the script. Danner’s patrician manner is slightly wrong for the ballsy Judith, but she makes it work. As noted, Parker has the juiciest role; Becca gets to go to pieces at least three times during the play’s mercifully swift 90 minutes. The Sex & the City star takes these moments and runs with them, creating a complex, shattered woman out of the scraps of Peet’s meager play. Ali Marsh has a satisfying ferocity as the furious Ali, determined to find hidden funds in Judith’s apartment. Michael Stahl-David is an attractive Gabe. The actor doesn’t minimize this taker’s greedy nature hidden behind platitudes about morality and being a vegan. Zoe Levin delivers a conflicted Lizzy, and Nilaja Sun gets a few good licks in as Judith’s feisty caregiver and housekeeper. Too bad Commons is all too common.
Nov. 21-Jan. 26. New York City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm &7pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $85. (212) 581-1212.www.nycitycenter.org