Even before the lights go down at the beginning of The Treasurer, Max Posner's modern parable of a play at Playwright's Horizons, the unnamed man (Peter Friedman) standing before us lets us know that "sometime in the future, I will be in hell." Take him at his word. He means this literally. And, indeed, by the end of the evening he will be on his way there. Literally.
And what is his crime, you might ask. What has he done, or what is he planning to do that will lead to eternal damnation? It's not hard to conjure up any manner of heinous deeds that would qualify, but the thing that the man is beating himself up for harkens all the way back to the Ten Commandments, specifically Commandment #5.
You don't need to look it up. That would be the one that tells us to "honor your father and your mother." But this man, referred to in the play only as "The Son," just can't bring himself to do it, even if it is a matter of saving his immortal soul. Not when it comes to his aging mother, that charmer (and she can be very charming), Ida Armstrong, deliciously portrayed by Deanna Dunagan, who will forever be remembered for her breathtaking (and Tony-winning) portrayal of the monstrous mother in August: Osage County.
|Production photos by Joan Marcus.|
Here she is a different sort of monster. She's not a domineering and controlling gorgon, although the impact on her middle-aged son is the same as if she were. Instead, she is, as he says of her, "the definition of delusional."
Make that narcissistic, manipulative, and delusional.
Ida's delusion is not all that uncommon. She lives well beyond her means, and she intends to keep on doing so, long after she has gone through her first husband's money, her second husband's money, and her own money. She fully expects her sons (there are three of them) to keep her in the manner of spoiled royalty that she has been accustomed to.
It falls on the youngest son, the one played by Mr. Friedman, to be the designated "treasurer," the one who is supposed to pay the bills and monitor Mom's spending; the others (nicely portrayed by Marinda Anderson and Pun Bandhu, who also tackle several other roles) are too intimidated to deal with her.
On the face of it, what we have here is that well-known combination of user and enabler. Throughout the play, we observe Mr. Friedman's character talking to Ida - almost exclusively by phone, since, as he says, his tolerance for being around her extends for no more than "two to three minutes." Mostly he is short and snarly, throwing fits about the way she runs up bills, and then - feeling guilty (and Ida is expert at guilt-inducing martyrdom) - grudgingly capitulating to her every whim.
Yet the playwright, the performers, and director David Cromer manage to take this familiar situation into intriguing directions that leave us uncertain as to where our sympathies lie. Surprisingly, Ida herself seems reasonably gracious as she accepts that she needs to go into a retirement home (insisting, of course, that it be the nicest one, requiring an upfront payment of $250,000, plus $2,500 a month that she does not have). We also see her interacting pleasantly with store clerks, including one who wants to sell her a pair of $700 pillows, and chatting on the phone with a caller seeking a donation for the local orchestra.
You can't help but think to yourself that this is an easily conned older woman who needs someone to watch out for her interests. She doesn't seem to be able to say no, and neither can her son, as she blithely drains her bank accounts and his.
We never really know the source of the son's resentment, what it was like growing up with Ida as a mother. You can only take him at his word when he tells us, "I will be in hell because I don't love my mother. I want her to die."
It all sounds rather bleak, but thanks to these master actors and a director with an eye for detail, THE TREASURER is a fascinating study of how apron strings can become a choking garrote. The son can only show his bitterness in little ways, by badmouthing his mother to others, replacing an expensive mirror with a cheap one from Amazon, or glaring at her over the one lunch we see them having together at an Asian restaurant, where he blithely uses chopsticks while Ida, who is slowly sinking into dementia, is compelled to eat with her fingers.
In the end, an epilogue that has the son riding in a descending elevator to that long-anticipated hell, we are left to consider who has been responsible for all the little murders we have been witness to: the narcissistic user or the resentful enabler?
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