It is refreshing to see a play open with really high stakes. “The Velocity of Autumn,” playing at In Tandem Theatre through March 17, does this in spades. Chris (Stephen Marzolf) a 40-something-ish, restless artist breaks in to his mother’s home by climbing her favorite tree up to a second floor window and flinging himself inside. But instead of welcoming her prodigal son home after a 20-year absence, she immediately orders him to leave or suffer the consequences: she’s prepared to blow up her entire Brooklyn brownstone using homemade Molotov cocktails, fueled with her late husband’s photograph developing fluid. And we can see that Alexandra, the determined, 79 year-old mom (a steel-spined Angela Iannone) means business; she holds a mason jar of accelerant in one hand and her father’s Zippo lighter in the other. She may be old, she may be a good candidate for an assisted living community, but she’s not leaving the building without a fight. Or so she threatens.
Of course the danger of starting a play with the threat of detonating a bomb is that there are only two options for the remainder of the story — either there’s a big explosion or there isn’t. And after a few punchy rounds of dialogue, it’s pretty easy to guess which way things will go. Panic gives way to the mundane, which gives way to boredom as the lifeless script plods along through family memories and ponderous realizations. The threat deflates like an old Mylar balloon, leaving us with 80 minutes of conversation about the disappointments of marriage and parenthood, failing to live up to one’s potential, and the indignities of aging, when one’s bones, joints, muscles and brain are achy and unreliable. For wayward sons and stubborn mothers, maybe there’s no hope of relief except through death.
The most disappointing thing about “The Velocity of Autumn,” isn’t that it’s about a depressing subject. In fact, there is an entire genre of plays dedicated to the misery of middle-aged children who are forced to make decisions about the care of their aging, and often failing parents. In Tandem actually did a piece in this vein last season — “The Outgoing Tide,” featuring a son who never lived up to his father’s expectations, summoned home to pore over care options for his dad, who suffers from aggressive dementia. Outside of its well-traveled subject and its loss of momentum in the first few minutes, where “The Velocity of Autumn” really misses the mark is in its shallow, inconsistent characters.
As Chris, Marzolf is supposed to be the ultimate black sheep of the family, so tortured by his inability to find his place in the world that he fantasizes about jumping into the Grand Canyon, where he once gave New Age hiking tours. We hear he was so hurt by his upbringing and resentful of his siblings that he didn’t even return for his father’s funeral.
But onstage, mostly we see a nice guy in a flannel shirt who looks perfectly suited to Brooklyn. Over the course of several conversations it’s revealed that there was no ultimate betrayal or explosive fight that sent him away; turns out he quit art school. That’s all.
And though he protests when his mother immediately taunts him with stories of delayed potty training as a toddler, the two estranged family members seem perfectly happy to see each other and reminisce. Marzolf paints vivid pictures of several important recent events that deal with art and life through long monologues, but with no urgency or catharsis, he could just as easily have been reciting a grocery list. There’s not much investment in the character, but there’s also not much on the page to invest in.
As the resourceful old woman who will not be ordered around by her own children, Angela Iannone excels at portraying the feisty senior citizen’s strength. But once again Eric Coble’s script undermines her performance, scattering details of Alexandra’s life all over the map, so it’s nearly impossible for the audience to determine where she should reside during her final years. Apart from the bomb threat, Alexandra is managing just fine on her own. The house is immaculately clean and well kept, if drab, washed in faded oranges and tans (set design by Steve Barnes). She is dressed and groomed with precision, as if ready for a board meeting at the Met, and her occasional lapses in memory seem harmless.
And while erratic behavior could be a sign of Alexandra’s declining mental state, it doesn’t explain a character that’s made of random contradictions. One minute she talks about clawing her way out of the pit of motherhood to reclaim her own identity, and relishing her time alone after her husband passed. The next, she desperately wants to see her grandchildren and begs Chris to move in with her. We hear she’s had bitter fights with longtime friends, but her neighbor is confident enough in her faculties to ask her to water his plants while he’s on vacation. She both complains that her joints can’t bear the walk to the subway and she wants to visit entire art museums that very afternoon. Sometimes frail, sometimes able bodied, Iannone plays the elderly woman as perfectly competent with momentary fits of frustration, and a mother who’s so cordial to her long-absent son, the bomb threat almost seems like a ploy for his return.
A bit of tension bolsters up the play when mother and son decide to unite against Chris’s cardboard cut-out, mustache twirling siblings, who are equally despised without much reason given. But it dissipates quickly.
What the play lacks in good character development it makes up for in a clumsy abundance of metaphors for the meaning of life and death. Sometimes it’s a canyon or a sand painting, sometimes a traffic accident, the flame of a Zippo lighter, or an exhibit at the Guggenheim. And it’s always a favorite tree, finally losing all its leaves after a brilliant crimson display earlier in the fall. If the play went on longer, perhaps it would also get around to similes with a bowl of cherries and a box of chocolates, not that it would help.