This one was sliding all over the game board for me. Understandable because it is a story about a family, and who among us is part of a family that is, shall we say, pristine. The Commons of Pensacola. “Where a friendly staff is on hand to meet all your needs” is really the last stop on the exile for Judith (Blythe Danner) who has been stripped of all her worldly assets on account of her husband, a money guy, bilked a ton of cash out of his clients. Judith seems to have escaped with the stylish clothes on her back and an attitude that snubs its nose at most of the world. It is Thanksgiving, and her 43-years old daughter Becca (Sarah Jessica Parker) and 29 year old beau Gabe (Michael Stahl-David) have just landed into town. They are soon joined by Lizzy (Zoe Levin), Becca’s beice who is sneaking into town to be with Judith and Becca instead of with her mother Ali (Ali Marsh) from whom Jutith is estranged. Everyone is all small talk and bon mots until the chink in the armor of family unity begin to show up.
For starters, Becca can afford to be away from New York for Thanksgiving because she is unemployed and has nothing else to do, except perhaps to babysit her agent’s children. Judith’s health is not all it is cracked up to be. As well, she has taken on an aide, Lorena (Nilaja Sun) who is an expense Judith cannot afford. Gabe and Becca have a secret all their own: they want to create a documentary about Judith and family who were left behind to mop up the shame of what the patriarch visited on his clients and by extension on them.
Add to this: infidelity, insecurity, betrayal and the question: What did Judith know and when did she know it? – and you have a boatload of possibilities.
Actually there are so many possibilities that we get lost in them. While the play leans toward suspicion about Judith’s possible complicity, Ms. Peet does not let this question lead the parade. So we are left like children on Christmas sorting through the wrapping paper to find the toys. Just when we think we have located one, we discover another very nearby that grabs our attention.
Judith’s fall from grace does not achieve lift-off. There are a few mentions about the way they used to live, but her present digs are decent enough. As if to make up for substance we listen to one too many unoriginal jokes about aging: farting, floaters, alzheimers, wrinkles – made all the more odd because Ms. Danner appears to be fit as a fiddle. The infidelity can be seen coming from miles away. The final scene between Danner and Parker is stunning in many ways (nice be reminded that Parker has stage chops and is way more than a pretty face), but it springs up out of thin air. There is little to support the mother-daughter argument in the preceding text, and that is too bad.
The concluding scene as well, appears to come out of nowhere, and the closing line offers a signpost for what I think Peet intended to convey.
This is a well-intentioned play, supported by some very fine performance, that could use the services of a dramaturge.
The Commons of Pensacola
By Amanda Peet; directed by Lynne Meadow; sets by Santo Loquasto; costumes by Tom Broecker; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Jill B C Du Boff; production stage manager, Diane DiVita; fight director, Thomas Schall; production manager, Joshua Helman; general managers, Florie Seery, Lindsey Sag; Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Ms. Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer. At the City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan, 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org. Through Jan. 26. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
WITH: Blythe Danner (Judith), Zoe Levin (Lizzy), Ali Marsh (Ali), Sarah Jessica Parker (Becca), Michael Stahl-David (Gabe) and Nilaja Sun (Lorena