A Feminine Ending
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 13, 2007
A Feminine Ending, a new play by Sarah Treem at Playwrights Horizons' smaller stage, has many good things going for it: four extremely engaging performances, two of them by veteran stage and screen actors who are always a pleasure to spend time with; colorful visuals by set designer Cameron Anderson and lighting designer Ben Stanton; and several intriguing story lines.
You caught it too: several intriguing story lines. That's frequently problematic, for generally just one is what you want to make a good sturdy play. Treem wavers throughout this piece, however, not just dramaturgically but also thematically and stylistically. A Feminine Ending is a well-intended work that disappoints as a result.
The play starts out seeming to be a love story, between a young woman from a small New Hampshire town who has come to New York to fulfill her dreams of being a composer and the nascent rock star with whom she finds herself, much to her surprise, attached. Alec Beard is immensely likeable as Jack, this young man on the way up (though not especially convincing, I'm afraid, as the charismatic legend-in-the-making that everybody keeps saying he is; Beard falters in his one lip-synched snippet of a musical number). Treem writes these two as young but grown-up, which is refreshing; it looks like Amanda has thought hard about her choice to put her own artistic career on hold in order to support Jack's; this feels like a smart decision rooted in pragmatism as well as love, and I found myself believing in it.
But then the playwright puts obstacles in the path that don't feel organic, one of which is a frantic phone call from Amanda's mom, back in New Hampshire, lucid but vague and apparently in severe crisis. Amanda needs to deal with her mother right away, and when she does so Treem abandons Jack and starts up a new plot line in which Kim (the mom) is planning to leave her husband of 30 years because she's bored with her life. Since Kim is played by the always-appealing Marsha Mason, I thought to myself, ok, let's spend time with her. It's unfortunate that Treem never lets this character make much sense; even when I at long last felt I was understanding her motivation for leaving Amanda's father David, the events of the play undercut the explanation I'd devised and I was back at square one, confused.
David is portrayed by the excellent Richard Masur, and though it felt that he had more stage time moving scenery than actually participating in the drama, his moments with Amanda are just golden (though they take the proceedings in yet another, ultimately unproductive direction).
Amanda also has a detour fling with Billy, a boy she knew in high school; Joe Paulik renders him as quirky, charming, and more than a bit neurotic. For a while it looks like the story has shifted gears again: Will Amanda abandon her New York idea and settle down with someone who really knows her and will support her in her art?
No such luck; Treem does tie up most of the loose ends she litters her play with, but the conclusion is not at all satisfying. Her writing is scattershot and just not particularly skillful here; she indulges in writerly tricks (an extended metaphor about musical composition that gives the piece its title is the most obvious example) and also allows herself lots of lazy devices (such as letting Amanda break the fourth wall constantly to talk to us without ever explaining precisely where Amanda thinks she is or whom she thinks she's talking to), but she fails to pull together a compelling story. Blair Brown's direction doesn't help, amounting mostly to a whole lot of furniture-shifting to realize the play's cinematic approach to location. And Gillian Jacobs's performance in the central role of Amanda is also problematic; she makes the character edgy and hard when frustrated and vulnerable might be more suitable.
One of the points Treem seems to want to make in A Feminine Ending is that a young woman in 2007 can succeed at her art without having to define herself in terms of a man. Great idea, as far as it goes. But why does Treem have to ignore the strides women have made in the field of music in order to make her point? She has Amanda recount a dream in which she attends a party full of famous composers—and all of them are men. I wanted Amanda to dream the dream again, and bump into Edith Piaf, Jeanine Tesori, Carole King, Laura Nyro, Billie Holliday, and some of the other groundbreaking females who have made music less of a man's game than it once was. But Treem's sense of history proves as off-kilter as her sense of playwriting. All in all, a most unsatisfying evening of theatre.