Old age is a funny thing — or so I've been told: As much as we understand that physical and mental infirmities come with advanced age, we're stunned when it actually happens to us.
Indeed, creeping decrepitude often is a funny thing in The Velocity of Autumn by Eric Coble, now being performed at Lakewood's Beck Center. This brilliantly titled two-hander features one outstanding performance and some sprightly byplay. But there are a few pockets of playwriting overreach that take the edge off the proceedings.
Alexandra is a month from her 80th birthday, on the decline physically, and barricaded in her Park Slope brownstone in Brooklyn with jars full of explosives. She is afraid of being shipped out to a nursing home by two of her three children, Michael and Jennifer. So they have asked their sibling Chris to fly in from New Mexico to reason with their dotty mother.
After scaling a tree and climbing in an open window, Chris confronts Alexandra and they begin to fence with words, the sharp-witted Alexandra landing most of the body blows.
Unencumbered by the expected maternal emotions, dearest Mommy unloads on her youngest son. She observes that baby Chris is a bit slow by commenting, "You must have loved sitting in your own pool of feces and urine."
Chris verbally flails back at his mom, but doesn't land any haymakers. And eventually we learn that Alexandra is really honked off because Chris left years before to go out west. "You left us," she laments, "you kept leaving."
It will not come as a surprise to learn that the emotional distance between mother and son fluctuates, as they eventually offer tentative gestures of friendliness and share family reminiscences. Both are, or have been, painters. So it's clear that Mom and offspring share at least one important trait, which leads to the play's most evocative moments.
Coble is a facile and productive local playwright, with what seems like a production going on somewhere in the area virtually every month. Some of his scripts are exceptional, such as last year's My Barking Dog at Cleveland Public Theatre. Others, however, suffer from a heavy reliance on clever but shallow dialogue. Velocity lands close to the more positive end of that spectrum.
This production benefits enormously from having Dorothy Silver, grand dame of the Cleveland stage, in the role of Alexandra. Proving she can play a younger woman, Silver invests Alexandra with just the right amount of festering bile and sharp-edged insight.
But what is most notable about Silver is the way she dominates the stage, even when she's not moving. Every pose she takes or gesture she displays punctuates the current moment and sets up the one to come. She is a symphony of acting intelligence.
David Hansen, a fine performer in his own right, often feels like a sideman in this duo. As Chris, Hansen hits all the marks, but he and director Eric Schmiedl never quite fashion the character into someone that embodies nascent strengths or compelling weaknesses — though there is lip service to both sets of traits.
Overall, Velocity feels like a cracking-good 70-minute play wrapped in the muffling cocoon of a 90-minute run time. Those extra minutes are taken up with excursions into forced symbolism and an off-stage police standoff that feels illogical.
But if old age is to be represented by anyone, let it be Dorothy Silver. Onstage, in her element, her performance is a treasure not to be taken lightly.
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