For the moment, Playwrights Horizons seems to be preoccupied with old age and dying. On its main stage, Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan… dwells heavily on the way a parent’s death can remind the middle-aged that they’re next in line for a call from the Reaper. Upstairs, in the company’s smaller Peter Jay Sharp Theater, sits David Cromer’s sensitively etched production of Max Posner’s The Treasurer, another play about the grief and anguish of mid-lifers as they witness the decline and death of their elders — in this case a mother sliding into dementia on her way to the exit.
Like Ruhl’s play, Posner’s presents largely secularized characters but toys with the notion of an afterlife; its finale is a lengthy monologue set in hell. A dramaturg might usefully call out writers who play by this annoying double standard: Either you believe there’s an afterlife or you don’t. If there is one, either you can’t come back from it to report to us or you can, under specified conditions.
The Treasurer’s main focus, however, is on one narrow aspect of the travails the issue of aging makes us face in this life: How much should children do for a parent from whom they are wholly estranged? Posner’s tiresomely self-willed and heedless heroine, Ida Armstrong (Deanna Dunagan), essentially abandoned her three sons in adolescence when divorcing their father. Her second marriage, to a relatively prosperous newspaper editor in Albany, has allowed her to indulge her free-spending taste for comfort, which has continued after his retirement, eating away at their savings. His death reveals a grave financial crisis: Their assets have all been sold off, the bank has foreclosed on their house, and there is nothing left for Ida but the goodwill of her long-neglected sons.
The two elder sons, both of whom were in college at the time of the divorce, grudgingly contribute to Ida’s upkeep but palm off the supervision of the funds on their younger brother, the play’s other focal figure, identified in the program only as The Son (Peter Friedman). The abstract name points up another aspect of the peculiar double game Posner plays: his constant switching back and forth from naturalism to what seems an attempt at allegory or parable. Some small matters are explored in realistic detail; many large ones are left a nebulous puzzle. We learn the names of The Son’s two brothers, Jeremy and Allen, but never what they do for a living or how well-off they might be. The Son’s own profession, we learn late in the play, is geology, but that doesn’t tell us whether he’s a modestly paid college professor or a prosperous consultant for an international mining company.
His motives for taking on the unwelcome task of playing treasurer to spendthrift Ida seem equally vague. Certainly no son would feel comfortable seeing his mother starve, but a son who describes his mother as “beyond selfish” and “the definition of delusional,” and who sums up his adolescence as, “I raised myself,” might be forgiven for letting her stew in her own heedlessness. And Ida, as the playwright presents her, confirms his low opinion. She will happily chatter to anybody about anything, but she really cares about nothing except herself. She insists on having a dog, at the (high-priced) assisted-living center to which the sons move her, but does nothing to care for it. Nor, for all her sociability, does she appear to have any close friends; the human contacts we see her engage with are salesclerks or randomly encountered phone callers.
Cromer’s staging underscores this eerie detachment by putting almost all of the play’s significant conversations — except those in which The Son talks directly to us — off to one side or in the corners, alcoves, and shadows of Laura Jellinek’s set. The two older brothers, heard but not seen, are played by the same two actors, one male and one female (Pun Bandhu and Marinda Anderson), as are all the other minor characters. Almost nothing happens stage center. Posner’s text, replete with phone calls and computerized voices, actually contains almost no face-to-face conversations, excepting Ida’s encounters with salesclerks and a single airplane conversation between The Son and his sociable seatmate. As with Ida and her disappearance from her teenage son’s life, what would normally be the dramatic substance appears to have been scooped out of the center of the play. A little of it comes back, briefly, when the mounting expenses inevitably make The Son rebel and cut off Ida’s credit cards. But she doesn’t learn from this any more than she has from anything else, and he finally relents.
With a central character who refuses to change, and an antagonist who refuses to give up on her, The Treasurer’s situation hits a dramatic impasse. It seems much longer than its ninety minutes because it can’t do anything but get worse, and it can only end, as it does, with death. Nor is there much to empathize with along its frustrating way, though Friedman, convincing and articulate as always, conveys The Son’s inner pain without any extra pleadings for pity. Dunagan skillfully keeps the intolerable Ida within the bounds of reality, making no attempt to inflate her into an Auntie Mame gone off the deep end. Still, she remains the theatrical equivalent of the party guest whose departure makes a host say, “I thought she’d never leave.” If Playwrights Horizons plans to turn itself into a three-dimensional End of Lifetime Channel, hers is a portrait to stand in such a gallery. On the whole, though, I think I would rather it looked for plays with more dramatic substance, some of which might involve aging and death without getting locked into predictable stasis.