Western civilization may not be pining for a play about the wretched (and lightly disguised) family of imprisoned con man Bernie Madoff, but need it or not, actress-turned-scribe Amanda Peet has written just such a play in “The Commons of Pensacola.” While it doesn’t realize its ambitions, it’s not half bad in the hands of the super cast in MTC a.d. Lynne Meadow’s tightly helmed production. Blythe Danner lends WASP dignity to the bloodied and bowed stand-in for Ruth Madoff, and Sarah Jessica Parker tears into the role of her neurotic older daughter, who’s about to go off an emotional cliff.
Judith (Danner) is more broken-down than she needs to be at the top of the play. It’s bad enough that the former society hostess has come down materially in the world, pinching pennies and living in a soulless apartment in Pensacola, an unfashionable city on Florida’s Redneck Riviera. At the advanced age of 71, the poor thing is also in terrible health, burdened by physical ailments that emphasize her vulnerability, but unfortunately also limit her participation in the ethical arguments that come up.
Danner compensates for Judith’s diminished strength by giving her a firm backbone and a stiff upper lip. And while she may be dead broke, she’s found herself a decent hairstylist and managed to hang onto some of her fashionable clothes (supplied by costumer Rom Broecker) from her old life. So, although Judith won’t answer the play’s burning question — as the CFO of her husband’s company, how could she not know that he was robbing his clients blind? — she does have the guts to stand up to the young filmmaker who has blindsided her with that loaded question.
This ill-mannered guest, who is named Gabe and is rather apologetically played by Michael Stahl-David, gained entrance to Judith’s refuge as the considerably younger boyfriend of her flaky elder daughter, Becca, a 43-year-old (and hence, unemployable) actress played with 100% commitment by Parker. But once inside Judith’s sanctuary, Gabe launches a full-press assault on her privacy, trying to talk her into his scheme to turn the family disaster into a TV reality show.
For all his assurances that this hellacious “docu-series” would bring her peace by cleansing her soul, his self-righteous attitude is accusatory and judgmental. What he’s essentially asking her to do is admit her complicity in her husband’s criminal enterprises, and become his victims’ champion, advocating on their behalf before Congress and the SEC.
“Don’t you feel anything for these people?” he demands, when she reminds him of her own suffering and tells him to go jump in the lake. “Suffering is not the same thing as being accountable,” he throws back at her.
If Gabe is insensitive to Judith in pursuit of his dubious “ethical agenda,” her estranged younger daughter, Ali (Ali Marsh), is positively pitiless. When a plot turn forces Ali to come collect her frighteningly mature teenage daughter, Lizzy (a noteworthy Gotham stage debut from Zoe Levin), she reveals that she’d denounced her mother to the FBI.
There are plenty of valid questions to be raised about Judith’s role in her husband’s affairs. The dramaturgical flaw of Peet’s play is that the wrong people are asking them. Gabe and Ali have already made up their minds about her guilt and aren’t interested in answers. Only Becca, who refuses to judge her mother, has an open mind. Aside from Judith’s compassionate home health aide (a warm-hearted perf from the invaluable Nilaja Sun), Becca is also the only person who seems to love Judith.
The chemistry between Danner and Parker (who worked together in “Sylvia”) is very real and really close, and they make us feel the strong bond between mother and daughter. Given the strength of their connection, Becca is the obvious person to ask those difficult questions of Judith — and the only one who might get a straight answer out of her. But Becca (or is it Peet?) can’t bring herself to confront the truth, whatever it might be, and that, unfortunately, pretty much takes the sting out of the play.