Monday, 11 August 2014

Cherry Jones in WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID by Sarah Treem at Manhattan Theatre Club

     After seeing two very well written plays in two days, BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY and SEX WITH STRANGERS, this one on the third day is a bit of a letdown. Many of Sarah Treem's credits are for quality television series like HOMELAND. Unfortunately she writes like a television writer, not a playwright. The first act has too many short scenes rather that are more like blackout sketches than developed scenes. As a result the act has no narrative momentum, no rhythm. The second act demonstrates more playwriting skill, though no particular verbal felicity. Treem has a story to tell, but doesn't tell it particularly well.
     WHEN WE ARE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID attempts to depict the lack of possibilities for women on the eve of the Roe vs. Wade decision. The play takes place in 1972 in the private area of a bed and breakfast on an island off of the coast of Seattle. Agnes (Cherry Jones, wonderful as always in an underwritten role) is the manager of the establishment that serves as a hideout for battered women. Agnes is raising Penny (Morgan Saylor), a sixteen-year-old girl who is going through the crisis of choosing between exercising her intelligence or nabbing a boyfriend (did every girl have to make that choice in 1972?). Also on the premises are a battered wife who still loves her abusive husband and still believes that women should sacrifice everything to get a man (Zoe Kazan, inaudible at times), a male boarder whose wife has gone countercultural and left him (Patch Darragh), and a young, militant Black lesbian (Cherise Boothe). Treem has given us a group of stereotypes rather than individual characters. The militant lesbian spouts slogans and is, of course, handy with tools. The battered wife offers the teenage girl the old-fashioned advice on how to nab a prize man (captain of the football team). The teenage girl doesn't believe she can be smart and attractive. The only male character seems sweet and vulnerable until he is sexually spurned. Treem's view of men  -- manipulative, sentimental, sex-obsessed and violent  -- is equally stereotypical. The only character with any substance is Agnes, and I wasn't sure whether that was the writing or  Cherry Jones' particular brand of genius. Hilton Als, the NEW YORKER's drama critic and the best drama critic working today (not that he has much decent competition), calls her a "spiritual actress." She does have the ability to bring an inner life to even weakly drawn characters. Agnes is an independent woman. She can cook, nurse (she was a professional nurse), manage a business, and counsel the physically and emotionally damaged women who hide out in her establishment. She's more hungry for love than she will admit and knows enough to accept it when it comes.
     Pam McKinnon has done what she can with the script. The play and production are very kitchen sink realism (a lot of muffin baking). We enjoyed the performance, mainly because Jones and Cherise Boothe were able to add depth to their characters, but the play is cliched even for television writing.
     One other thing. The theater was absolutely freezing. It's a wonder we all don't have pneumonia!
 WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AN UNAFRAID. Manhattan Theatre Club. August 10, 2014.  

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