In Amanda Peet's fine playwriting debut for Manhattan Theater Club at City Center, "The Commons of Pensacola," Sarah Jessica Parker and Blythe Danner are daughter and mother locked in a domestic dilemma: Judith (Danner) is forced to scale down as her husband has been jailed for a Madoff-mode crime. Becca (Parker) arrives for Thanksgiving with a boyfriend much her junior. Her sister Ali (Ali Marsh) has broken off from their mother for mysterious reasons, so her daughter Lizzy (Zoe Levin) must sneak a visit to grandma now residing in a generic Florida condo. All would be cozy, complete with a fold out couch, except that the wrong couple ends up sleeping there.
Well directed by Lynne Meadow, Parker's Becca deftly guards the freezer in a death grip when her sister arrives, and stands face frozen as certain betrayals threaten her place in the world. Danner is accustomed to playing ditzy, as she did in Noel Coward's "Tonight at 8:30," at East Hampton's Guild Hall this past summer. A little out of it works well for her role as Judith, the clueless wife of a criminal; she has a maid to help her manage her meds (a standout Nilaja Sun), and she's given to farting. But just watch her gaze sharpen when challenged by Becca's beau Gabe (Michael Stahl-David) when he suggests a reality show of her downsized circumstance.
Peet is especially good at getting the language of this upscale Jewish family, the well-tuned banter that can cut and cajole, as when Becca wants to know why her mother has not given her the cash she offered Ali. "For Lizzie's college," mom replies. "She the one who has promise." Ouch! "I want you dead," says Becca in another scene, "And I don't even feel bad for saying so." You know she means it.
So, how much did Judith know about her husband's enterprise?That was the unanswered question on everyone's lips at Thursday's opening as guests Treat Williams, Jessica Hecht, Fred Weller, Liz Smith, Matthew Broderick, Margaret Colin (now in "Taking Care of Baby," Danner's son Jake Paltrow and wife Taryn Rose made their way to Brasserie 8 ½. Amanda Peet does well imagining the personal terrain where the scandalous headlines would tread, if they could. As to the daughter-mother bond, in a venture to make the private public, the play's resolution may have this duo updating the Edie's in Grey Gardens.
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