The Commons of Pensacola

The first produced play by actress Amanda Peet has a lot going for it, including highly emotional performances by Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker in Amanda Peet's The Commons of Pensacola at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker in Amanda Peet's The Commons of Pensacola at Manhattan Theatre Club.
(© Joan Marcus)

There’s a certain amount of scrutiny that comes with having your very first play produced. When you’re a famous actress having your very first play produced featuring two famous actresses at one of New York’s biggest theatrical institutions, that scrutiny is amplified a gazillion. So I don’t envy Amanda Peet, the comedic costar of such films as The Whole Nine Yards and Something’s Gotta Give, whose first play, The Commons of Pensacola, is currently in production at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center – Stage I in a production starring Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Fortunately for us, Peet, whose stage work as a performer includes two Neil LaBute plays and a misbegotten revival of Barefoot in the Park, acquits herself surprisingly well for a first-time scribe. Peet’s coming-out party, a comedy-drama about the repercussions of a major crime on the unseen criminal’s family, is still very much a first play, with telegraphed twists and the certain feeling of undercooking, but it absolutely displays a promise of good things to come.

Danner stars as Judith, the wife of a Bernard Madoff-like con man who bilked hundreds out of millions and is presumably spending the rest of his natural life in the clink. Judith has retired down to a Florida condo (designed in all its kitschy glory by Santo Loquasto), where she spends her days taking meds for a series of health ailments and gabbing with her maid, Lorena (Nilaja Sun). Yes, she can still afford one. Barely.

Set over Thanksgiving, The Commons of Pensacola finds Judith being visited by her daughter Becca (Parker) and Becca’s younger boyfriend, Gabe (Michael Stahl-David). Becca has couched the motives for her planned arrival as a simple visit, though very quickly we learn that this out-of-work actress/tv presenter and her guerilla journalist lover have a different motive.

Peet has a solid ear for human-sounding dialogue and a knack with one-liners that, when delivered with stinging sharpness by Danner and Parker, become laugh riots (Danner, in particular, has two bleakly hilarious lines that are my favorite yuks of the season.) It helps that the actresses, who last performed on stage together nearly two decades ago in MTC’s Sylvia, have a natural chemistry, believable as a mother and daughter equally at their wits end. Stahl-David gives depth to Gabe, a role that could use a bit more fleshing out and later gets trapped in an annoyingly predictable plot tangent that involves Judith’s visiting granddaughter Lizzy (Zoe Levin, an impressive New York stage debut). Ali Marsh, as Ali, Judith’s other daughter, and Sun, a gifted solo performer, are similarly stuck in one-note roles.

As staged by MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, The Commons of Pensacola swiftly moves and goes down easily. Peet’s ambitious subject matter isn’t as smoothly explored as in other works with similar ideas (namely Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and Steven Levinson’s The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin), but in focusing on mothers and daughters, Peet plows a very fertile emotional ground, ably explored by her leading ladies. While the text could use a bit fleshing out (it never escapes the feeling that it was rushed into production), Peet clearly has a lot of ideas up her sleeve, and I’m curious to see them.