nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
May 13, 2005
Frederick Bronsky is an elderly, cantankerous, work-obsessed abstract impressionist painter. One day, young ambitious art critic Whitney Beecham arrives to interview him. After sending her away once (he was in the middle of painting), Frederick reluctantly accedes to her questions. During the interview, he drinks a copious amount of vodka, insults her profession, and won’t give a straight answer to any of her questions. What’s a young mousy-but-sexy intellectual type to do? Well, this one falls madly in love and demands to be seduced.
The budding romance is met with no resistance, intrigue, or conflict from Frederick’s good-looking son Richard, a wealthy lawyer who is ending his third marriage. Despite the fact that Frederick and Richard have an argumentative relationship and have barely spoken for six months, Richard unexpectedly shows up to stay while his wife moves out of their apartment.
Soon after he arrives, Whitney tumbles barely dressed into the room. She has written a glowing article about Frederick, moved into his tiny apartment, changed her wardrobe according to his tastes, and is off to a job interview he has arranged for her. Richard is immediately taken with her, but as soon as they’re alone Whitney makes it clear her single heart belongs to his father. As they talk further, Whitney makes Richard see that Frederick’s insults are just “code” for his love. Almost immediately, Richard stops flirting, begins encouraging Whitney and Frederick’s relationship, and becomes Frederick’s tough-love best friend as well as Whitney’s big brother figure. Well! Thirty minutes in, and what seemed to be the central crisis of the play has been averted.
What happens for the next eighty minutes, you ask? Frederick and Whitney communicate in puns that would make a six-year-old cringe, their relationship a series of exchanges like: “And never the twain shall meet”/ “What’s a twain?”/ “Something that runs on a twack.” Their shared interest in this sort of humor clearly denotes a match made in heaven, and they marry.
But wait, all is not sunny. Act Two commences, we find out that Whitney is unhappy. She’s got a great new wardrobe, a sexy new job she adores, and a husband she’s madly in love with, but she needs something more. She needs independence! She needs to hang out with her friends and talk about Eminem! (“The candy?” Frederick ripostes.) She needs to be able to hang out until 3am without fuddy-duddy Frederick getting cross! She needs freedom! Will true love win?
Throughout the play, it is impossible to shake the impression that Frederick himself has written it, and what we see is what this proud, narcissistic man wants us to see. And he’s willing to admit some flaws about himself: he’s threatened by Whitney’s success even as he encourages it, he’s an irascible scoundrel who has temper tantrums and throws his food on the wall, and he likes to play Pygmalion to beautiful young women. But these are constantly tempered. We learn he’d happily be part of Whitney’s new successful life if only she’d let him, that the temper tantrum is just part of those “designer genes” that make him a successful artist, and that his ministrations actually make the beautiful but unrealized young ladies much happier. And although at the end Frederick officially has “changed” by realizing even the happiest of couples need a little personal space, he also makes clear to Whitney that if she moves back in nothing is going to be different. Whitney assures him nothing needs to be different—she’s done the changing, and he is free to stay the same.
It’s a sweet story, but it’s hard to buy that even Frederick believes it’s the whole one, and the experience of watching it is ultimately unfulfilling. Like many troubled families, the Bronsky family has their skeletons firmly in the closet, their official stories polished to a blinding gloss, and nothing, not even a paying audience, is going to make them crack the door and listen to the rattling bones.