Is there anything original left to be said about the eternal battle between a controlling mother and a passive-aggressive father for the heart and soul of a rebellious child? Possibly not. But that doesn’t stop David Marshall Grant from trying to goose that perennial domestic conflict by serving it up with heavy doses of Freudian symbolism — including the suggestive “Pen” of the title. It’s ironic, then, that these weighted metaphors contribute less to the play’s appeal than the quick-witted one-liners that Grant pitches with effortless skill to his cliched, but wryly observed characters.
Never mind fathers and mothers — the real tension in both Grant’s play and in Will Frears’ direction is between comedy and melodrama.
Scribe is determined to have his say about the family dynamic in which estranged parents play subtle power games by manipulating the lives of their children. So there’s a lot of symbolically freighted behavior to show how every player in a family drama, including the weakest member, is constantly seizing, losing and regaining power. At the same time, Grant allows as how, over time, these games settle into ritualistic patterns and coded dialogue exchanges that would be funny if they weren’t so painful.
Things look pretty grim at curtain rise, what with Long Island divorcee Helen Bayer (J. Smith-Cameron) stuck in a wheelchair with a neuromuscular disease and her 17-year-old son Matt (Dan McCabe) squirming with pent-up anger and frustration at having to jump to her every dictatorial demand. After one exceedingly long exposition scene, it is pretty clear that Matt doesn’t stand a chance against his domineering mother, who controls his every move and is engineering his enrollment at a state college 15 minutes from home.
Matt’s a spunky kid, though, and he’s caught some of the spirit of liberation that has taken over the country by 1969, when this play takes place. Up to this point, his rebellion has been undisciplined and ill-directed — he lies and steals and was once brought up on a shoplifting charge. If he has, indeed, stolen his mother’s favorite pen, it’s a real battle cry.
Now, Matt has come up with a plan for breaking out of his cage: he has applied for admission to USC. But he’s doing it with the help of his father, who’s footing the bill and throwing in a car. Since Jerry Bayer (Reed Birney) has plans to take his pregnant girlfriend and move out to California himself, this makes dear old Dad the most ruthless player in the game.
And a well-played game it is, in Frears’ crisp production, with articulate thesps turning in clean, uncluttered perfs in a nice, neat stage setting that doesn’t set off any hidden depth charges. But it could have been more than a game, one suspects, if Grant had not been so wedded to his schematic grid plan of symbols and metaphors — scrupulously not divulged here — and let the characters have their comic voice.