Sarah Jessica Parker is fond of remarking that she’d have been content to have remained a theatre actress all her career. Indeed prior to attaining stardom via Sex and the City and acquiring the modeling and fashion commitments that A-list status seemingly entails, she’d built up a solid body of work on the New York stage.
Yet SJP has not acted in theatre since 2001. Now though she’s made amends on her absence delivering a captivating performance as the broken scion of a disgraced East Coast family in actress Amanda Peet’s witty and affecting playwriting debut The Commons of Pensacola that opened last night at Manhattan’s off-Broadway New York City Center theatre.
Shrewdly for SJP her character Becca, a struggling actress, occupies a different world from the Cosmopolitan-fuelled exploits of Carrie Bradshaw and co. Becca visits her mother Judith Commons (Blythe Danner), a Ruth Madoff-esque figure, who has been forced to sacrifice her opulent New York lifestyle for a one-bedroom condominium in Florida following the imprisonment of her husband for fiscal fraud.
In creating a mother afflicted by past guilt and a daughter trapped by present torpor, Peet (whose acting credits include Syriana and Enough Said) has created a penetrating study of family conflict. Examining the fall-out from financial scandal hardly constitutes new creative terrain of late with a glut of new films and plays devoted to the subject (most notably Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine to which this work will be invariably compared). But Peet eschews a ripped-from-the-headlines approach instead unflinchingly depicting the ways that minor tensions inflame the turmoil for a family that have fallen from grace, long after the patriachal culprit has been incarcerated.
The Commons of Pensacola supports the thesis that in order to write a decent play, you need to have acted first. Peet is something of a creative magpie lifting the best traits from the writer-directors she herself has previously worked with in theatre and film; she gives her characters acerbic one-liners reminiscent of a Nicole Holofcener movie and an emotional pugnacity you usually find in Neil LaBute’s work.
The play constantly treads a fine line between farce and tragedy with the family finding humour and horror in their plight (“I’m the only person in the entire state of Florida who can’t wait to get Alzheimer’s”, Judith laments.) It strikes a delicate balance and the lightness of touch occasionally becomes jarring with the onset of yet another fart joke or ironic aside. But infidelity and a stash of money in the freezer ensure drama remains at the forefront.
Peet is aided by snappy direction from veteran director Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club that is staging the production, Santo Loquasto’s elegant set design and fine performances from a cast that includes Michael Stahl-David as Becca’s sinister filmmaker boyfriend Gabe and Zoe Levin as her niece Lizzy.
But it’s primarily the SJP/ Blythe Danner show with both actresses taking full advantage of Peet examining the mother-daughter dynamic with a precision I haven’t seen in a new play since David Hare’s Amy’s View in 1997. The Commons of Pensacola might sound like a Vanity Fair feature transplanted to stage but happily it’s so much more than a vanity project for an actress writing her first play and a star returning to the theatre.
The Commons of Pensacola runs at New York City Center, New York, until January 26