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'The Velocity of Autumn' review: Estelle Parsons wasted in play

Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella in "The Velocity

Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella in "The Velocity of Autumn" at the Booth Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

How fortunate most people would feel if they had Alexandra's troubles. She is 79, a relative youngster in our increasingly geriatric times. She owns a beautiful brownstone in Park Slope and money does not appear to be an issue. Yes, her body is, as she puts it, dwindling, which makes her achy and sad, and she has had a few incidences of irrational anger and slight dislocation that makes her aware of losing "me."

Mostly, she just seems to be the sort of scattered, aging eccentric that most plays and most families consider annoying, at worst, but more often charming.

Given this information and little more in Eric Coble's artificial two-character serio-comedy "The Velocity of Autumn," we are meant to believe -- actually, to care -- that Alexandra (Estelle Parsons) has barricaded the doors and booby-trapped her house with flammable bottles to keep from being hauled off to a retirement home. Offstage are two of her three grown children, cardboard characters so eager to dislodge her that we can't help wondering what mom did to raise such mean kids.

Enter long-estranged gay son Chris (Stephen Spinella) who, in just one of the bogus gestures in 90 minutes of emotional and theatrical contrivances, climbs up Alexandra's favorite tree to get into the house (an enviable beauty designed by Eugene Lee).

His siblings have summoned him from disillusioning adventurism in New Mexico because, as he explains like an amateur hostage negotiator, "You have been having increasing troubles."

It seems Chris was always his mother's favorite -- an artist, like her, with a restless spirit that, as she puts it, doesn't "think in a straight line." As she also puts it, her late husband wasn't exactly opposed to Chris' gayness. It just made the man "uncomfortable, like Gorgonzola cheese."

Aside from equating a man's homophobia with his least favorite cheese -- which Chris apparently understands -- Parson's Alexandra also brays, wails, squints up her face in animated approximations of a woman aware of losing her sense of self.

The production, a success at Washington's Arena Stage, has been directed with an admirable minimum of sentimentality by that theater's artistic director, Molly Smith.

Even with actors the caliber of Parsons and Spinella, however, this is a once-over-lightly insult to a subject that deserves so much more than a mechanical showcase for gold-standard performers.

WHAT “The Velocity of Autumn”
WHERE Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.
INFO $65-$135; 212-239-6200;
BOTTOM LINE Good actors in trivial comedy about the profundities of aging.

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