Eric Coble received his MFA in acting from Ohio University, but his new play, The Velocity of Autumn, is almost a perfect example of the type of work that comes out of contemporary writing programs. It is sharp, well-written, and has an immaculate sense of form. On the other hand, it is unsurprising and timid; any attempts to challenge the audience’s expectations or theatrical conventions are squashed in favor of good dialogue and well-worn narrative arcs. It is far too neat, which is more of a systemic problem than one specific to this play.
Alexandra (Estelle Parsons) is a seventy-nine-year-old artist whose body is falling apart and whose mind remains well enough intact to respond to these changes with horror. Her well-intentioned but misguided son and daughter—who remain offstage—want to move her into a nursing home, and she has declared war on both the young and the process of dying by barricading her doors and filling bottle after bottle with film developing fluid. These makeshift molotov cocktails, she notes wryly, are “more combustible than gasoline.” One way or another, she will shuffle off this mortal coil while remaining in her Park Slope brownstone. In a last ditch effort to persuade her with reason, the two siblings have sent in Chris (Stephen Spinella), her third child who, as a gay man and a foundering artist, has more in common with Alexandra and may be able to convince her to surrender.
Ms. Parsons, who is seven years her character’s elder, spends most of the play sitting in a chair and pitching her plight to Chris. “Proper nouns are the first thing to leave the body,” she laments, bringing the right mixture of dark humor, exasperation, and rage to Alexandra. Death is, of course, so completely unfair or, as Woody Allen once wrote, “unacceptable,” and The Velocity of Autumn traces this tragedy through an old man’s death and her middle-aged son’s failure. Mr. Spinella, who only two years ago played Jonson’s Volpone with delicious menace, is toned down as Chris, finding that arguing with Alexandra is like arguing with infinity; he incessantly fingers his mustache as if the accoutrements of adulthood can save him from this unwinnable battle.
And the play does have its moments of insight. “The hardest thing about raising all of you was you were always there,” Alexandra, a woman who always valued her freedom, admits to Chris. Now, trapped in a deteriorating body, it’s “like the world’s in one of those speeded-up movies and I’m just stuck watching it roar by.” Still, Mr. Coble’s script never successfully breaks out of the model of The Modern American Play and we are occasionally stuck with monologues about car accidents and monologues about Navajo ceremonies whose metaphorical importance is elephantine; as if that weren’t enough, a massive tree that Alexandra planted outside decades ago envelops the stage, a constant reminder that the cycle of life and death is Mr. Coble’s central concern. “It had that one branch,” she recalls, “just high enough for a kid to grab and hoist. It never pulled that branch out of reach, you and it shot up together. So welcoming. So welcoming.” Indeed, there is something welcoming about The Velocity of Autumn, something warm and familiar. I just wish that something jarring, something uncomfortable would occasionally reach Broadway.