This image released by Polk & Co., shows Estelle Parsons, left, and Stephen Spinella during a performance of “The Velocity of Autumn,” at the Booth Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Polk & Co., Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — Not many old people who fear being shipped off to a nursing home fight back with a home arsenal and bomb threats.
However, the inimitable Estelle Parsons has gleefully unleashed her inner anarchist with gusto to do just that in the dark comedy “Velocity of Autumn,” which opened Monday night in a wry, spirited Broadway production at the Booth Theatre.
Playwright Eric Coble presents the aging decay of the human mind and body as a necessary process replete with mordantly humorous and empathetic moments. He lightens the potentially depressing subject matter by providing plenty of comedic zingers to both Academy Award-winner Parsons — here powerful and ingratiating — and to her co-star, the equally skilled Stephen Spinella.
Both of these pros imbue their characters with genuine poignancy, rueful humor and their own adept timing. Molly Smith’s deft direction also creates a sense of urgency during the 90-minute showdown about a seeming no-win situation.
Parsons plays Alexandra, an elderly widowed artist who’s grown tired of fighting the mental and physical indignities of old age. Independent and feisty, she’s self-barricaded inside her Brooklyn brownstone, while two of her adult children wait impatiently outside, threatening by phone to either put her into a nursing home or call the police because of her bomb threats.
Alexandra is both thrilled and angry when Chris, her long-estranged and once-favorite third child, (a very likable portrayal by Spinella), climbs into her room through an open window. Sympathetically but urgently, he attempts to dissuade his mom from lighting up the dozens of Molotov cocktails she’s prepared for her showdown.
Spinella, winner of two Tony Awards, is a delight as a downtrodden, middle-aged man fighting inner despair over his failures in life. Parsons ranges with nuance between squirrely eccentricity, raspy anger and anguished despair, as she fights to convince her son that she needs to stay in her beloved home. At one point, she slowly collapses into herself, much like a deflated balloon.
As the pair reminisce somewhat fractiously, Alexandra makes telling points about the less joyous aspects of motherhood, in particular her dismay about the neediness of her young children (“You were always there!”). But most of her anger centers on increasing physical frailty and mental confusion. “Old age is one big game of ‘Surprise,'” she notes with regret, adding, “You never know how you are until you get up.”
Mother and son re-bond in many ways, both yearning for a way to find grace and beauty even in decline. As embodied by these two high-caliber performances, Coble creates a thoughtful, potentially enriching gift to the audience.