Max Posner’s The Treasurer, now playing at Playwrights Horizons under the assured and gentle direction of David Cromer, is a quiet revelation. At a moment when the theatrical landscape is dense with new plays that haven’t quite figured out why they’re not TV — when we struggle to dramatize the realities of our lives without trapping ourselves inside stiflingly realistic dioramas — The Treasurer arrives as an antidote. It makes boundaries porous, creates a space that blends the mundane and the mystic, that slips between the life of the moment and the life of the mind, even obscures the border between life and whatever comes after.
At the center of The Treasurer is a character we know only as the Son (in a performance by Peter Friedman that’s as delicate as it is shattering — about this, more later). The Son lives in Denver, rides his bike to work, loves his wife, Nora, and his kids, and addresses the audience with warm but rational candor: He’s a Capricorn, after all. He will be our guide through a play that’s part memory and part projection, a play that he, on some level, knows he’s in.
“My son called this morning and asked if he could write a play about — my mom,” the Son reveals at the top of the show. Friedman stands alone on the stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, chatting with us while the house lights almost imperceptibly start to dim (the stealthy, poignant lighting design is by Bradley King). Friedman and the lights are doing the same thing: They’re pulling us gradually into the play’s world, teaching us its rhythms and rules. One rule: The Son will often muse to us from his bicycle, punctuating the story he’s sharing with mundane returns to his present moment — “I am at a red light,” “I am taking a left turn,” “I’m on a bike path near the reservoir.” (There is no bike onstage.)
His story is one almost every family knows a version of. The Son’s stepfather has died — the man that the Son’s now 80-some-year-old mother left him, his brothers, and their father for when the Son was a teenager. He grew up without his mother, listening to his father weep. Now that mother is alone, half a country away. She likes living “a certain way.” She has mountains of debt. She’s — so says her Son — “impossible … beyond selfish … the Definition of ‘Delusional.’” The Son’s two older brothers nominate him to keep an eye on their mother’s finances (the trio only ever communicates over the phone). The Son becomes the Treasurer. And as he rides his bike through Denver’s lovely bike lanes, he grapples with a chilling, inescapable fear: “Sometime in the future … I will be in Hell because… I Don’t Love My Mom.”
Posner’s play is a ravishing slow burn, with layers that quietly unpeel as the piece goes on. At first glance, Laura Jellinek’s chilly, drop-ceilinged set seems a bit piecemeal — a finished wall here, some pegboard there, exposed drywall elsewhere — but at some point along the way, this slyly mundane space starts to make a heartbreaking kind of sense: We’re in a Basement — but it’s both a real basement (where the Son comes to log into his home-office computer and check on his Mother’s ever-mounting debts) and also a cold, figurative underbelly. The place underneath the Son’s good life — a kind of subconscious, a kind of Hell.
The painful wisdom of The Treasurer is that it’s not just the Son’s Hell. For all her flaws, it’s his mother’s too. As Ida Armstrong, Deanna Dunagan (who won the 2008 Best Actress Tony for August: Osage County) gives an adjective-defying performance. She made my chest hurt. In many ways, her Ida is everything the Son says — she embroiders the truth, she’s passive-aggressive and self-pitying with her estranged children, and she clings to an image of herself as a socialite, a woman who shops at Bergdorf, whose (second) husband ran for Congress, who gives generously to the Albany Symphony Orchestra. When the Son tries to tell her that he can’t afford to pay for the fancy senior community where Ida’s wealthy friend Sadie lives, Ida protests, as if such reasoning will make the money appear: “I’m a Beaverbrook person! I’ve played tennis there.”
Underneath the coat from Bergdorf — and the matching pants she bought at Talbots with $49.99 of her son’s money — Ida is devastatingly lonely. And her mind is starting to fail. Even if you’ve never seen a relative slip toward dementia, Dunagan’s performance cuts to the core. As Ida makes repeated sallies at small talk — almost always with sales associates, once with a stranger who picks up the phone when she decides to dial a random number that keeps recurring in her memory — we can sense the desperation beneath her chattiness, her drowning grip on any human connection no matter how fleeting. Posner keenly recognizes how many of our interactions are transactional: Ida is in debt not simply because she’s “selfish” and wants nicer things, but because the only people who will talk to her are the ones who are trying to get her to spend money. Her son doesn’t know how to talk to her for more than a few minutes at a time.
He raises his voice to his mother all of once during The Treasurer, and the effect is terrifying. Earlier in the play, an expensive mirror that Ida adored falls from the wall in her new room at the Beaverbrook (yes, her sons ended up shelling out for it) and shatters. Well, nothing actually shatters onstage in either of these moments — not when the mirror falls, and not when Friedman screams into the phone, punctuating every word with sudden, incandescent fury: “You’re – never – the – one – paying!” But each time, I clutched at my heart and felt a crack. “Why are you full of rage?” writes Anne Carson in the prologue to her translations of Euripides. “Because you are full of grief.” Posner quotes Carson as the epigraph to The Treasurer, and in Friedman’s stunning performance you sense every fathom of this deep truth.
Over and over again, The Treasurer opens up its world — one whose surface we know well — into little pockets of strangeness, glimpses into the basements of our minds and hearts, where cold fluorescent lights flicker and our most profound dreads sit collecting dust. We witness an increasingly surreal — and increasingly distressing — conversation with an online banking security system (“In what city was your father born?” … “What was the name of your first pet?” … “Did she die in your arms?”). A series of disorienting blackouts and overlapping voices create the simple, unbearable image of oncoming dementia. The Son rides an elevator to Hell.
Not until late in The Treasurer do we realize that Posner is tipping his hat — and doing so with wit and grace — to another play about mothers and sons, The Glass Menagerie. “The play is memory,” Tennessee Williams’s narrator Tom Wingfield told us for the first time more than half a century ago. “It is dimly lighted … it is not realistic.” Like Tom, Posner’s Son (who is also his Father) is running — well, biking — away from somebody, a ghost he’ll never fully leave behind. And in the hands of both Cromer and Friedman, his attempt to say good-bye is, quite simply, a marvel.
The Treasurer is at Playwrights Horizons through October 22.