The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
A CurtainUp Review
Chasing Manet

Out! Out! I want out.— Catherine.

I wrote the play to console myself about the inevitability of me and all of those I love ending up in nursing homes, and to let the audience know that everything is possible at the end — if not in reality, then in your imagination.—Tina Howe, quoted in a New York Times background feature by Patricia Cohen on the eve of Chasing Manet's opening, 4/09/09.
Chasing Manet
Jane Alexander as Catherine in Chasing Manet
(Photo: James Leynse)
This seems to be a season that has the angel of death multi-tasking all over the place. Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King (review), begins with the announcement that its title character will die by the end of the play (and so he does). John Weidman and Susan Stroman''s Happiness (review), a musical variation of Sutton Vane's Outward Bound (review) has the victims of a subway crash recall their most perfect moments in order to have a smooth entry into the great beyond.

Now comes Tina Howe's Chasing Manet, a somewhat too quirky fable about two octogenarians in what John Donne called death's twilight who seek one last fling away from the Mount Airy Nursing Home in Riverdale to feel fully alive. Actually it's one resident, Catherine Sargent (Jane Alexander), who most fervently hates being at Mount Airy. Once a successful painter whose Boston Brahmin family fortune has disappeared through her husband's bad investments, Catherine is now legally blind and not in the best of health which is why her son, a Columbia professor, felt it best for her to be in a home near him. Her only initial utterance, "Out! Out! I want out" sums up this latest rumination on dealing with death.

Rennie Walters (Lynn Cohen) isn't exactly the sort of friend Catherine might have had in her pre-nursing home life. But Catherine needs an ally if her "getting out" scheme is to work, and Rennie's dementia makes her an easy to enlist conspirator. Her role in this implausible odd couple adventure will be as a sort of seeing eye dog in a wheelchair.

The scheme Catherine has cooked up is a rather grand one — a voyage on the QE2, destination Paris (which accounts for the 1980s time frame). It was in Paris that she first saw Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, a portrait of seated female nude attended by two fully dressed young men by a young painter named Edouard Manet, a print of which she's kept throughout her own career as a painter as "a reminder of what a feisty young painter can do." That Manet print which is the only personal touch in her half of the room she shares with Rennie, is Howe's obvious metaphor of what a feisty old lady can do, or at least try to do.

Catherine's battle to be in Paris rather than a Bronx nursing home when the Grim Reaper arrives is intended to brighten this contemplation of the painful last exits that even strong-willed people like her, as well as those with lots of loving relatives like Rennie often can't escape. Naturally, it takes a capable cast, especially for the Catherine Sargent role, to give Howe's mix of stark reality and quirky fantasy a chance to work. Fortunately Jane Alexander, seen all too rarely on the New York stage these days, is on hand as the lead. While she's 69 and looks younger, Alexander manages to be reasonably convincing as a woman in her eighties and be the seething cauldron of anger, despair, wry humor and determination the script calls for. As her roommate and fellow conspirator, Lynn Cohen, is quite touching as the cheery, out of her mind Rennie but the script over-milks her dementia prompted lunacy in order to ramp up the laughs and improbability of this getaway actually succeeding.

Director Michael Wilson firmly and seamlessly steers the four excellent members of the support cast through some twenty roles. Julie Halston transitions between a nutty Mount Airy resident and Rennie's devoted and daughter. Jack Gilpin morphs from Catherine's well-intentioned, poetry reciting son to a wheelchair-bound dirty old man. Vanessa Aspillaga and Bob Riley play two attendants as well as others, including Waltzer family members; and the always reliable David Margulies does his best to individualize his share of the multiple assignments.

As Ms. Howe mentioned at an Outer Critics playwrights panel earlier in the season (and again in a pre-opening NYTimes interview), this play, like Pride's Crossing (review), was inspired by her real life Aunt Maddie who, unlike the channel swimmer of the former and the painter in Chasing Manet, never climbed any mountains in terms of travel and achievement. Howe's inability to comfort that beloved aunt during her last, sad days at a nursing home (in Riverdale) exacerbated her own fears of ending up in such an institution. And since Howe, unlike Mabel in Pride's Crossing, did marry the Jewish man she fell in love with, she's also used her new play to bring together characters from her Boston roots and her married life.

Watching once vibrant people in various states of decrepitude, especially for those of us old enough to ponder our own last exits, is likely to overarch the playwright's effort to be both funny and hopeful. Still, Alexander has some wonderful moments. The scene when she rouses herself from her mute, face-to-the-wall inertia long enough to educate the visiting Waltzer family to the difference between Monet and Manet and the importance of the Nude woman in the Manet painting over her bed, is a highlight; so is her wry, introspective monologue after Rennie's daughter invites her to be part of their next outing for lunch away from the Mount Airy.

Since this IS essentially a fable, I suppose some details that wouldn't pass muster in a strictly realistic play should not be looked at too closely; and yet, even given the circumstances it's hard to believe that people like the Waltzers would be likely to arrive at Mount Airy without having made exact arrangements as to single or shared rooms. What's more, no nursing home would ever leave a resident's medications within easy view and reach, and an 84-year-old woman's long white hair would be a lot thinner and stringier than Alexander's shiny, flowing white wig.

Scenic designer Tony Straiges has made a modest attempt to follow the playwright's request for a set that's open enough to cast a dreamlike aura over the set. To do so, there are no walls between hallways and Catherine and Rennie's very ordinary, sparely furnished room and two of the wheelchairs used by most of the Mount Airy residents are suspended from the ceiling. Are those wheelchairs omens of how the physical constraints of old age underscore the improbability of Catherine's wish for final fling at life, or do they portend a cheerier "mission accomplished" finale? You'll probably come up with the correct answer even if you haven't seen the play.

Chasing Manet
Written by Tina Howe
Directed by Michael Wilson
Cast: Jane Alexander (CatherineSargent), Vanessa Aspillaga (Esparanza, Saviana, Agelica, Marie-Claire, Sibyl), Lynn Cohen (Rennie Waltzer), Jack Gilpin (Royal Lowell, Sherwood, Mrvin, Rob), Julie Halston (Iris, Rita, Charlot), David Margulies (Henry, Maurice, Reginald Allen Pointer the III), Rob Riley (Charles, Gabe, Remy Bonaparte)
Sets: Tony Straiges
Costumes: David C. Wollard
Lighting: Howell Binkley
Sound: John Gromada
Production Stage Manager: Susie Cordon.
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission
Primary Stages 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, (212) 279-4200
From 3/24/09; opening 4/09/09; closing 5/02/09
Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 3:00 p.m. on April 12th and Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. on April 15th & 22nd. There are no evening performances on April 22nd, 23rd, & 30th.
Tickets: $60 each with a specially priced $20 ticket available to patrons 35 and under
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 4th press preview
Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
  • I agree with the review of Chasing Manet
  • I disagree with the review of Chasing Manet
  • The review made me eager to see Chasing Manet
Click on the address link E-mail:
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):

Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email. . .also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.

You can also contact us at Curtainup at Facebook or Curtainup at Twitter
South Pacific  Revival
South Pacific

In the Heights
In the Heights

Playbill 2007-08 Yearbook

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide


©Copyright 2009, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from