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'When We Were Young and Unafraid' review: Cherry Jones shines, play flails

From left, Zoe Kazan as Mary Anne and

From left, Zoe Kazan as Mary Anne and Cherry Jones as Agnes in "When We Were Young and Unafraid" by Sarah Treem, directed by Pam MacKinnon at Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Cherry Jones is a magnificent actress. So we must assume that, fresh from her Tony-nominated Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie," she saw something worthwhile in "When We Were Young and Unafraid." Wish I knew what.

Jones plays Agnes, a saint of an Earth mother who runs a clandestine shelter for battered women in her comfy B&B on an island off the Seattle coast. It is 1972 and, as playwright Sarah Treem keeps telling us, big changes are happening out in the world.

Somehow, Treem, who wrote HBO's "In Treatment," and director Pam MacKinnon, who staged the revelatory recent revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" have been unable to make us believe the situation or these characters -- much less care about them. The usually dazzling Zoe Kazan is annoying as Agnes' brutalized visitor, who arrives like a broken bird and, minutes later, is squirming around like Maggie the Cat. Burning issues -- feminism, abortion, racism -- are used as trivia in a bad soaper.

WHAT"When We Were Young and Unafraid"

WHERE Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th St., through Aug. 10

INFO $89; 212-581-1212; manhattantheatreclub.com

BOTTOM LINE Jones is magnificent; play's not.

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