Marsha Mason and Gillian Jacobs
in A Feminine Ending
(© Joan Marcus)
Marsha Mason and Gillian Jacobs
in A Feminine Ending
(© Joan Marcus)
Charm in a script is a rare commodity. Charm combined with wisdom is rarer still. Charm and wisdom enhanced by genuine emotion is that much harder to find. Which is why Sarah Treem's exciting new play, A Feminine Ending, making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons under the assured direction of Blair Brown, is an uncommon discovery. It's the sort of work that makes a patron not only happy about having enjoyed -- and been challenged by -- every bittersweet minute of it but extremely eager to see what the obviously enormously talented dramatist will do next.

Treem's very human comedy -- at first seemingly limited in scope and intentions -- is ultimately a piece that reveals depth in its understanding of human behavior and motivation. Amanda (Gillian Jacobs) is a young oboist and would-be composer who has come to New York City from small-town New Hampshire to develop a career. Too soon, though, she's interrupted by a survival job writing jingles and by a love affair with a rising rock singer called Jack Handel (Alec Beard).

On the verge of marrying Jack, Amanda is called home by her mother, Kim (Marsha Mason), who announces she's leaving Amanda's father, David (Richard Masur), to make an independent life. Since this is not Kim's first time threatening to leave her husband, Amanda initially decides not to stick around even overnight. But she changes her mind about staying when she bumps into high school boyfriend and now local postman Billy (Joe Paulik) -- who, she suddenly realizes, has more intriguing facets to him than the shy ways he exhibited when the two of them took many dates to share a first kiss.

On the surface, A Feminine Ending -- which takes its title from a musical term about ending a phrase with a weak note -- appears to be little more than a gentle study of five recognizable figures. Projections announce each scene as a "movement" (as in "Movement Four: True Love.") But Treem has more on her fertile mind. Clearly, a woman thinking about how women can thrive in the contemporary world, Treem builds to a crescendoing coda her beliefs in the potential of women like Amanda and Kim to affect their own endings. Yet, she never underestimates the men's three-dimensional potential, offering Jack, Billy and David equal opportunities to be surprising and substantial.

Not only are Treem's notions of character as fresh as a Krispy Kreme doughnut off the rollers, but what comes out of the characters' mouths is totally unexpected. Line after line is delightful while being revelatory. For example, when Amanda asks Kim when she became "such a bitch," Kim responds, "I don't know. It just happened." On the page, admittedly, that doesn't sound as uproarious as Mason makes it sound. But one of Treem's admirable strengths is that she doesn't write gags; she writes lines that are believably funny when expressed by wholly real characters -- and made even better by actors like Mason and Masur, who shine like sequins in their supporting roles.

Jacobs, who is on stage for the entire 90 minutes, does the sort of breakout work that Calista Flockhart did more than a decade ago at Playwrights in Jonathan Marc Sherman's Sophistry. A beauty in the Natalie Portman tradition, Jacobs carries this lightweight-heavyweight piece as if she were bouncing a helium balloon. She's simultaneously adorable and deep.

The actress also gets to play opposite two young actors who will also spring from this gig into even more important atmospheres. As Billy, Paulik makes self-possession a precious gem as a postman who carefully puts personal letters at the top of every stack he delivers. Such assurance in both character and actor is highly unusual and must be announced whenever spotted. Beard is also appealingly sexy, although he hasn't yet found the optimum way to meld Jack's initial allure with his eventual insensitivity.

So never mind that Obadiah Eaves is credited with the music Amanda supposedly writes. Treem, Brown, Jacobs, and company have quietly but forcibly revised the once weaker implications of a feminine ending.