Maybe you’ve heard the plot of this one before: Girl with artistic talent falls for boy with ditto; fears loss of identity if they wed; goes home to mom; discovers they are two peas in a pod; finds the courage to assert her own identity. Despite the thin storyline and stock characters, Sarah Treem’s “A Feminine Ending” speaks up for itself in an unusually melodic voice, which is probably why Playwrights Horizons put its resources into such a snazzy production, helmed by Blair Brown, for this winsome find-yourself play.
Originality is not the draw here. Treem is a Yale Drama School grad and knows her way around the developmental theater (“A Feminine Ending” was workshopped at Portland Center Stage), so you’d think she would acknowledge she’s resurrecting a 1970s feminist rallying cry by taking “the tyranny of gender” as her theme.
But there’s no sense of context, let alone homage, in scribe’s treatment of a young woman’s struggle to find her own feminine voice in a man’s world. Rather, the journey to maturity that constitutes the play’s dramatic action takes place mainly in the head of the self-absorbed heroine, a recent conservatory grad whose instrument is the oboe and whose higher ambition is to compose symphonic pieces.
Under actress-turned-director Brown’s crisp helming, the stage is smartly set for the journey of self-discovery that Amanda (Gillian Jacobs) must take to find her voice as a composer and her identity as a woman. Cameron Anderson does his bit with a stylized set construction that looks like the innards of a musical instrument and feels powerful — like something a musician might pray to. Obadiah Eaves refines the message with the lyric delicacy of his original music.
Taking up Amanda’s cause, Jacobs flashes her considerable charm on a musician who is trying hard to live up to the instrument she plays. It seems that, while the oboe serves to tune up the entire orchestra, it cannot itself be tuned. In the same way, Amanda is aware of how she might further the career of her fiance, a budding rock-star named Jack (Alec Beard), but she can’t seem to focus on finding her own musical direction. While she vaguely senses this might have something to do with the unequal ways in which male and female artists are perceived, she is extraordinarily (and unbelievably) naive about sexual politics.
Beard is amusing to watch as Jack hesitantly tries out his new macho muscles as a rock-star stud, and Jacobs practically sits in the audience’s lap for her funny little monologues. But despite Treem’s whimsical dialogue for the lovers, the cute-as-hell charm of their floundering relationship wears thin, and it’s a relief when Amanda bolts for her parents’ home in New Hampshire.
Marsha Mason and Richard Masur take over nicely on this family turf as Kim and David, playing these stereotypical parents-without-a-clue with the droll humor to support the quirkiness demanded by their fey dialogue and mannered behavior.
Mason even manages a hint of feeling when Kim demonstrates to her daughter that her own hopes and dreams were strangled at the altar by domesticity.
But darned if that saw-it-coming-a-mile-away plot device doesn’t put its own drag on the action. Finally, it is left to Joe Paulik to perk up the proceedings with his seriously funny turn as Billy, the town postman who grew up desperately infatuated with Amanda — and who may yet get lucky.
The audience also gets lucky here, sensing that something may yet actually happen in this talky play. And even though it comes too late in the game, the comic kick that Treem finally delivers suggests real hope for the playwright.