With the best title of any Broadway play this season, two always-impressive actors as the cast, and a theme of loss and aging that hits close to home, “The Velocity of Autumn” is the sort of play you want to root for, even when its premise is preposterous, and its outcome predictable.
Estelle Parsons plays Alexandra, a 79-year-old painter who has barricaded herself in her Park Slope brownstone, and filled her parlor with Molotov Cocktails, holding her father’s ancient zippo lighter at the ready, although as Eric Coble’s play begins, she has fallen asleep.
Suddenly, we see a man, a pony-tailed aging hippie, climbing up the mammoth tree outside her home, and entering through the window.
Alexandra wakes up and screams.
“Hey mom,” the intruder greets her.
Chris (Stephen Spinella), who is also an artist (albeit working in a shoe store) and the youngest of Alexandra’s three children, has been estranged from the family for decades, but he has come for a visit, at the urging of his two siblings, to try to convince his mother to stop threatening to blow up the block.
She is doing so because her children are worried about her lapses, and wonder whether she might not be better off in a nursing home. If Alexandra is feeling old, it is all the more so because of the way her children treat her.
In the conversation that follows over 90 intermission-less minutes, we get some insights that feel spot-on about what it feels like to be aging – the indignities, the unexplained aches, the constant surprises, the hidden benefits that one could do without: “One of the few pleasures, I have to say, of growing old,” Alexandra says wryly at one point, “is that I can re-read some of my favorite mysteries and still have no idea who’s going to do it.”
In “The Velocity of Autumn,” we sense who’s not going to do it within the first few minutes. The playwright’s plot device can’t stand up to even a few seconds of scrutiny. But at his best, Coble, making his Broadway debut, offers a line or an exchange odd or intriguing enough to feel like just compensation for the missing dramatic tension. Chris’s being gay was not a “dealbreaker” to his father, the widow Alexandra explains. “It just made him uncomfortable. Like Gorgonzola cheese. … Your father was a big cheese fan. You must remember that. ‘Milk’s bid for immortality’. That’s what he used to say.” What follows is a long, loopy story about the father’s unfortunate encounters with Gorgonzola cheese.
“So my being gay was like distasteful cheese to him,” Chris says after a moment.
“I’d say so, yes.”
“I have no idea how to respond to that.”
Spinella, who made his remarkable Broadway debut as Prior Walter in Angels in America some two decades ago, is enough of a pro to make the most of Chris’s monologues full of yearning and regrets, and he seems the right choice to match up with Estelle Parsons, whose most indelible performances include her roles in the movie Bonnie and Clyde, and in the play August: Osage County, one of some 30 Broadway productions in which she’s appeared over more than half a century. She can turn any part into something worth watching, and she certainly can handle a woman who’s fighting to keep from falling apart. That indeed is the underlying irony behind “The Velocity of Autumn.” Parsons is actually older than her character by seven years, but we never quite believe she’s capable of falling apart.
The Velocity of Autumn
by Eric Coble. Directed by Molly Smith. Scenic design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Rui Rita. Sound design by Darron L. West.
Cast: Estelle Parsons, Stephen Spinella
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: 65 to 135