In Tandem’s Two Hander A Treat

In 'Velocity', aging mother and estranged son fight over her independence, with dramatic, witty results.

By - Feb 27th, 2019 10:02 am
Steven Marzolf (Chris) and Angela Iannone (Alexandria). Photo by Mark Frohna.

Steven Marzolf (Chris) and Angela Iannone (Alexandria). Photo by Mark Frohna.

It’s known in the theater trade as a “two hander” – a play for two strong actors, often a domestic confrontation, often an occasion to bat insults at each other to the audience’s delight before growing into a more affectionate understanding.

Eric Coble created such an arresting two-hander in 2011 called The Velocity of Autumn about an angry aging mother defending her New York brownstone turf, as a pyromaniac if necessary, and the long estranged favorite son called in to help reason with her.

Patrons in the small 10th Street Playhouse will have no hesitation giving the In Tandem production more than two hands of applause through March 17.  And that is despite the fact the hovering combustion of its opening setup comes to plague the play since the playwright eventually wishes to back away from the nihilism expressed by angry Alexandra.

Good acting insight can smooth a lot. The actors and director Chris Flieller have lessened the repetition built into the script. Largely through the power of amused understanding, the characters bring pathos and agonized humanity to the realities of old age.

Coble may not have landed on the right ending for the play, but he seriously understands how the body may fade and mind be confused while the basic personality is still alive and self-protective. His mother, Alexandra, still has a sharp tongue and a determination to decide for herself what to do with her own fading body and real estate even as society and her settled children seek to cart her off to a nursing home. Only the long-absent Chris sees both his siblings’ point of view and yet shares his mother’s sense of being caged.

It’s not a totally equal two hander, since inevitably Coble has given the strongest and funniest insights to Alexandra and the nature of old age. It’s a perfect opportunity for actress Angela Iannone to combine the restraint of a waiting tigress with spitting vocal fury.

She tears wickedly into her long-absent son with caustic modern sarcasm and embarrassing reminders of his childhood — perhaps realizing he is the only heir who would not try to rip out of her hands the jar of fuel and Zippo with which she threatens to blow up the house.

There is a sly grin working under her most extreme anger, giving the production room to grow into behavior deeper than angry defiance. Iannone disguises her own boundless energy within the stillness, aching limbs and flashes of sanity from a once physically vital woman.

Iannone would not be so successful without a meticulous listening and reacting partner in Steven Marzolf as Chris, the son who fled to the West Coast years ago rather than dealing with personal relationships such as his difficult mother. Despite the actor’s basic charm, Chris’ moments of self-revelation are simply not as interesting as Alexandra’s. But Marzolf is an actor who takes his time to listen and react in perfect tempo even though he is not quite the image of independent spirit the script keeps referring to. Both he and Iannone are veterans of technique and purpose and immense fun to watch.

Designer Steve Barnes can only hint at a New York brownstone by providing one stripped room and an important tree outside the window. In trying to think out all the options facing the duo, playwright Coble has trouble settling on the best climactic moment. The mother’s initial nihilism isn’t quite a match with her final decisions, and as much pleasure as the actors provide in the ups and downs, they rise and fall in search of a more believable finale.

But these faults do not defeat the enjoyment of the journey. Coble not only has a gift for language, but for insights into an all-too-human condition.

The Velocity of Autumn Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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