Lynn Cohen and Jane Alexander in Chasing Manet
(© James Leynse)
Lynn Cohen and Jane Alexander in Chasing Manet
(© James Leynse)
It's only a clichéd spirited old lady role, but Jane Alexander makes as much of it as could be hoped for in Tina Howe's Chasing Manet, currently at Primary Stages. In fact, her performance is the main point of interest in the otherwise under-developed, sitcom-thin play.

Alexander plays Catherine Sargent, an almost blind, famous painter who is indignant to find herself withering away in a nursing home "where people go to die." Her son Royal (Jack Gilpin), a Columbia professor and continual disappointment, lives nearby but rarely visits despite having uprooted Catherine from her small circle of friends to do so. She's understandably bitter and frustrated to spend the rest of her days cooped up in her room and longs for an escape that seems impossible -- until the arrival of her upbeat but delusional new wheelchair-bound roommate Rennie (Lynn Cohen).

The play often aims for comedy -- haughty Catherine's increasingly focused scheming is meant to contrast amusingly with chipper Rennie's tenuous grasp of reality -- but there's more than a faint whiff of unpleasantness in Howe's attempt to mine laughs from one woman's unfortunate condition and from the other's exploitation of it. Moreover, Howe hasn't done enough on the page to depict a growing fondness between the two women, so the actresses can hardly be faulted that it doesn't get adequately communicated and that their relationship remains hard to believe in and root for.

Still, by giving her just the right amount of impatience and a touch of grandeur, Alexander makes Catherine entirely believable as a once-celebrated artist whose confinement has darkened her spirit. The character can be cold and rough, and her nasty candor is the only thing in the play that gives it some friction, but Alexander doesn't turn her into a one-dimensional bitter old biddie. Cohen, in the far more static role of Rennie, isn't given the chance to find as many layers.

Michael Wilson's staging sometimes seems limited by Tony Straiges' set design, essentially three neutral tan walls of Catherine and Rennie's furnished room set back to clear two areas, one downstage and one along stage right, to serve undressed as all else. Wheelchairs are suspended overhead for no discernible reason. A twice-used sound effect of crashing wheelchairs is poorly executed.

Everyone in the ensemble besides Alexander and Cohen is pressed into playing multiple characters, with mixed results. Vanessa Aspillaga scores by communicating a measured compassion as one of the nursing home's caregivers, but she doesn't convince at all with a French accent as an occupational therapist. Julie Halston is too distinctive an actress to slip smoothly in and out of her several characters here, including Rennie's daughter. No one does well in the scenes where asked to play the nursing home's other senior citizens -- even the versatile David Margulies -- mostly because each is reduced to one cutesy characteristic.

And while the presence of of Manet's initially scandalous paintings is meant to be a constant reminder for Catherine's inspiration for breaking the rules, the play has as much of that spirit as a Hallmark TV movie.