Estelle Parsons Puts Up Her Dukes in The Velocity of Autumn


“Old age is no place for sissies,” Bette Davis said. Alexandra, the Molotov-cocktail–wielding grandmother at the center of Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, couldn’t agree more. Waging a war on gray hair and arthritic knees — also her insensitive children who want to move her out of her Brooklyn brownstone — she’s armed, dangerous, and taking no prisoners, until her prodigal son, Christopher, climbs through the window to negotiate a peace agreement.

That’s the premise at least of this mostly good-mannered, two-handed comedy that transfers to Broadway from D.C.’s Arena Theater. Sounds of explosions and sirens accompany the opening curtain, but it rises to reveal a snoozing septuagenarian in a flowery head wrap and drooping stockings. The only bombs that get thrown are in the vein of irony and insult as a lifetime of failed dreams, wanderlust, marital complacency, and sibling rivalry are hung out to dry on the proverbial laundry line.

Coble’s writing can swing abruptly from zingers to hysteria to melodrama, but he gets dead right the hardest part of growing old, which Alexandra sums up with her characteristically brutal honesty: It’s “learning to stay out of the way” while life goes on without you. Impressively spunky at 87, Estelle Parsons turns in a candid performance halfway between fear and rage when neither mind nor body will do one’s bidding anymore. Stephen Spinella is her dependably deadpan partner in crime who finally helps her raise the white flag and close the door behind her.