“We’re both looking at our children.” On one level, this line — spoken near the end of The Treasurer, a speculative, often frustrating new play by Max Posner, receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons — is a statement of fact: the elderly woman who says it sits across from her grown son, who looks at a photo of his own family on his iPhone. But on a deeper level, it also defines the play’s central questions: What happens when familial bonds shift and a child becomes the guardian of his parent? Exactly what obligation do we have to the generation who raised us — particularly when they didn’t do such a bang-up job?
The Treasurer is at its best when it explores these issues. Jacob (Peter Friedman), a mild-mannered finance guy in his sixties, has reluctantly agreed to manage the dwindling estate of his mother, Ida (Deanna Dunagan). A throwback to the days when men earned and women spent, Ida seems blissfully unaware of her dire financial situation: her home is underwater; her credit cards are maxed out; she can’t afford to move into Beaverbrook, the tony assisted-living facility where all her friends live. She scoffs when her son suggests she move into a state-run retirement home — “I’m a Beaverbrook person,” she sharply intones, as she goes about spending money she doesn’t have.
Jacob makes it clear that Ida was never much of a mother. She left the family when he and his brothers were teenagers, marrying a man whose sole talent was living above his means. She adapted well to living large on borrowed money and chafes at her son’s new world of budgets, belt-tightening and spending only on necessities. Dunagan employs a patrician tone and flawlessly clipped diction to communicate Ida’s attitude of entitlement.
Posner excels at capturing Jacob’s frustration at being tasked with keeping his mother — whose irresponsibility and obliviousness become exacerbated by rapidly worsening dementia — on a tight leash, knowing full well she’ll fall back on her old habits the first chance she gets. It doesn’t take long. Left to her own devices, Ida donates extravagantly to the local symphony (“Do our names get printed in the program?” she asks, eyes glinting) and buys clothing she has no place to wear. Jacob sits in his basement home office and listens to the disembodied voice of his banking service rattle off the charges: “Thirty dollars to Human Rights Watch. Fourteen Forty Five – Pet Sitting by Eva. Forty Five – Symmetry Hair Salon.” Friedman, an actor who has made wry humor his stock and trade, offers a mini-master class in deadpan acceptance: “I just won’t retire.”
But the play falters when Posner attempts to tie Jacob’s vexation at his mother’s recklessness to some dogmatic belief that he deserves Hell. He means this literally: Although the script describes Jacob as “vaguely Jewish,” and he refers to himself as an atheist, he voices an utter conviction that his actions towards his mother make him worthy of damnation. “I will be in Hell because I don’t love my Mom,” he flatly states. “I want her to die for practical reasons. I pay for her life … and I want to stop paying for it.”
I call bullshit. Although Friedman tries his best to put across Posner’s deathly serious religious admonitions, I never once believed this character would spend so much time consumed by the fear of a torturous afterlife. And even if Hell did exist, I remain unconvinced that his actions — performed with a grudging but dutiful sense of resignation — would earn him such a punishment. Perhaps his complicated feelings would land him on a therapist’s couch for several extended sessions, but a fiery pit for all eternity? Nah. Jacob cares for his mother as best he can; in many ways, he shows her more careful consideration than she ever showed him. So why is she the saint and he the damned? Posner never shows us, and the shoehorned metaphysical subplot only distracts from the play’s more interesting and tangible elements.
Posner complicates the issue by only allowing us to see Jacob in relation to his mother. We never get a sense of who the man was before he undertook the massive responsibility of being her financial caregiver. It’s definitely a choice, but it’s the wrong one. (The play is called “The Treasurer” after all — not “The Mother”). Ida achieves three-dimensionality on the page, a fact only furthered by Dunagan’s warm and entertaining performance. But this belies her true nature as a deeply selfish person. Ida’s enormous egocentrism remains clear even in that late scene with her son — although she’s looking right at him, she never actually sees him. And because of her swiftly deteriorating mental condition, she never will. But Posner doesn’t allow us to grasp the psychic pain this causes Jacob, despite Friedman’s attempts to infuse the character with a level of depth that’s not in the writing.
Director David Cromer tries to patch some of these holes, with intermittent success. He employs meta-theatrical devices — stagehands coming on to adjust props mid-scene, extreme lighting shifts (designed by Bradley King) — as well as I’ve ever seen. In the same vein, Pun Bandhu and Marinda Anderson superbly play a host of small roles across racial and gender lines. I was initially awed by Laura Jellinek’s striking unit set, which suggests the play’s various shifting locales by fusing realism with a hyperawareness of its own theatricality. But as with Jellinek’s work on last season’s A Life, in the same theater, the design elements often usurp the dramaturgical elements, which only reinforce the shortcomings of the text.
The Treasurer asks what debt, if any, children owe their parents. But by tying this question to a literalist conception of the afterlife, Posner doesn’t allow his protagonist the chance to offer an honest answer. He must fulfill his filial duty or face Hell. Actually, it’s more of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Either way, it obscures what could have been a really interesting examination of the complicated weight of caring for a loved one. That’s the play I wish I’d seen.