Friday, January 24, 2014

A family plot

Family conflict over an inheritance has inspired rich plots from Henry James' The Spoils of Poynton to Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and it sets the scene for a new play called The Portrait, by Sarah Levine Simon, currently playing off-Broadway at Theater 54.

The enigmatic ancestor in The Portrait.
Two brothers in late middle age, Toddy and Henry, have gathered with their wives at Toddy's apartment for a dinner to which nephew Marty and his wife have been invited.

Each brother covets a painting Marty has inherited -- a portrait by noted artist Thomas Sully of their ancestor, Solomon Ezekiel Renard.

They lay a wager as to which one of them can acquire it, then are joined by wives Helen (Toddy) and Agnes (Henry). The atmosphere turns arch as the two women also square off over such heirlooms as chairs, tables and "father's desk."

When Marty, a theater director, arrives along with his spacey opera singer wife Alissa, we learn that Solomon Ezekiel was Jewish and the family has somewhat conflicted attitudes towards their faith. In the present day, a daughter named Harriet has married a Protestant minister, causing a stir since the family has always been "discreetly Jewish," a phrase that speaks volumes.

Marty is developing a theater project "about America's first Jews" that needs money and the brothers practically claw each other to bid for the painting, thereby financing the play. One of them wins, but as he goes off to get his checkbook, the other reveals the truth about the portrait.

Director Roger Hendricks Simon plays the conniving Henry and James Williams the fussy Toddy, with Caitlin O'Heaney as glamorous and bitchy Helen and June Stein as temperamental Agnes. James Leaf brings a bracing practicality to Marty while Jessica Eleanor Grant gives Alissa a charmingly hippie quality. Rutanya Alda perpetually looks as if she is about to drop the dishes with a crash as the ditsy French maid Honoré.

The play is billed as "a new comedy of bad manners" and is played as farce, albeit with a pace that I thought could have been quicker. However, what resonated for me and what I would have loved to have seen further developed -- perhaps as drama first, with humor second -- were the serious themes of family history, relationships and greed. As it stands now, The Portrait is an enjoyable evening in the theater and, potentially, a meaningful one.