Chasing Manet is worth seeing for excellent acting and a great cause

Every year, director Terry Dodd finds a play perfectly suited to the historic lobby of the Barth Hotel, with its long central desk and gleaming wooden furnishings, and stages it as a benefit for Senior Housing Options, an organization that provides humanistic, caring homes for indigent seniors in several facilities around the state — including the Barth. Each production raises as much as $50,000, a life-saver in this time of cutbacks, and serves as a terrific example of the vital role that theater can play in a community. The setting influences the action, with residents sometimes strolling across the acting space, but there are other important aspects to this endeavor: the way local businesses pitch in to help; the trust and understanding that develop among SHO staff, Barth residents and the acting company; and the primacy of the location. In most thriving cities, a facility like the Barth would be pushed to the margins; in Denver, it sits in the heart of LoDo, amid art galleries, restaurants, nightclubs and brewpubs and a stone's throw from the bustling Denver Performing Arts Complex.

Dodd's past choices have included The Hot L Baltimore, a tender and tart evocation of the life of a group of misfits and dreamers gathered in a hotel lobby, and Steve Martin's hyper-clever and very entertaining Picasso at the Lapin Agile. But though this year's choice, Chasing Manet, is worth seeing for the excellent acting and perceptive direction, it's a pretty dopey play, with dialogue that sounds like pure Oprah.

In her eighties and blind, Catherine Sargent has been committed to a nursing home by her son Royal, a professor at Columbia, and she's pissed. He moved her here from Boston, where she still had friends, so that he could see her more often, but now rarely visits — and, given the way she talks to him, you can see why. Catherine is a famous painter whose work is in the permanent collection of several prestigious galleries, the cousin of American portraitist John Singer Sargent, and a Boston Brahmin with enough money to pay for first-class passage on the Queen Elizabeth II when she so desires. Playwright Tina Howe's control of her tone is so tenuous that for a long time I couldn't figure out if Catherine really was all these things or simply deluded, and my uncertainty about what was real and what wasn't persisted through the unfolding of the entire plot — right up to the obsequious tending Catherine receives at the end.

Billie McBride, right, and Carol Bloom, center, with a resident of the Barth Hotel.
Billie McBride, right, and Carol Bloom, center, with a resident of the Barth Hotel.

Into Catherine's unhappy life comes a new roommate, the moonily smiling Rennie, who's in the early stages of dementia, talks frequently to her long-dead husband, Hershel, and — naturally, given the conventionality of Howe's plotting — is Jewish to Catherine's high WASP, which allows for a few gentle jokes about their cultural differences. Rennie has a large and loving family. They visit often, and their banal conversation drives Catherine crazy. But Catherine eventually figures out that, given her still-functioning brain and Rennie's still-functioning eyesight, the two of them can team up for an escape. They'll go to Paris, she decides, and view the work that most inspired her own: Manet's "Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe." We're supposed to understand that the two women have now bonded, but the characters are so uni-dimensional that you never sense any real connection between them. When they do get out, it's with the help of a staff member who was once an actor and a Golden Gloves boxer, and who dreams of flying a plane in Hawaii. "Leap, and the net will appear," Catherine advises him sagely. In farewell, he comes up with something even cornier: "You go, girls. Pick some of those daisies for me."

Billie McBride plays Catherine, Carol Bloom is Rennie and Laurence Hecht Royal, and there are solid performances from Brian Kusic, Joey Wishnia, ZZ Moor and Pam McCreary, each playing several roles. But even this adept cast can't do much with the material.

Aging is a bitch, usually played on stage for either comedy or pathos — and in Chasing Manet, with a large dollop of whimsy. For a hard-nosed, intensely comic and far more believable model who earns her few touching moments, I'll take Diana Trent of the sitcom Waiting for God. Told that the loathed director of her facility is depressed because he feels life is passing him by, she responds, "Oh, dear, well, we must just get life not to pass him by. We must get life to back up and run him over."

After all, what's the point of being an aged pain in the ass if you can't even enjoy it?

 
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