Peter Friedman is one of Manhattan’s superior actors. He’s been adding to a substantial resumé since the original 1988 production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles. Stocky and now balding, he excels at playing ostensibly solid men wrangling, to a greater or lesser extent, with roiling anxieties.
Lucky for audiences and definitely for playwright Max Posner and director David Cromer, Friedman now has the leading role in The Treasurer, at Playwrights Horizons, where management regularly bank on him to come through.
This PH time around, he’s The Son and the treasurer of the title—termed the treasurer because he’s handling financial matters for his mentally deteriorating mother, Ida Armstrong (Deanna Dunagan).
Friedman arrives on stage even before the house lights have dimmed. He’s eager to chat with the crowd, and in that zone he has its members pulling for him no more than in a matter of seconds. Among the things he chooses to confide is his belief that he’s doomed to Hell. He’s headed there, he claims, because he’s a son with no love for his mom—and that’s as a Jew in a religion that doesn’t believe in Hell.
For a script containing generous poetical moments, Posner supplies a succession of scenes illustrating why this son has good reasons if not to dislike his mother than to be stretched to the breaking point over her consistently trying behavior.
For example, Ida—showing no regard for the little money she has—insists that, like her wealthier friends, she deserves to be at the most expensive assisted living facility. To get her way, she goes silent over the phone when her son suggests more manageable alternatives. She gets her way.
Posner doesn’t just insert scenes where mother and son exchange abrasively conflicting views. He also has her in other situations, one being the hard time she gives a saleslady (Marinda Anderson) over a pair of purple velvet trousers she’s indicates she’s going to purchase.
Then there’s the phone call (The Treasurer takes place in Denver and Albany) where Ida declares she dislikes her new phone because she can’t keep friends’ phone numbers sorted on it. This contentious back-and-forth is the one where The Son, under director Cromer’s shrewd hand, loses it. And it’s unlikely a single audience member won’t cheer him on.
It’s also the unlikely audience member who won’t appreciate Dunagan’s completely unsentimental portrayal. This mother is nothing like the alcoholic parent for which she won the Tony in August: Osage County, but Ida is her own doozy, and Dunagan doozies it up thoroughly.
Playwright Posner does his job so well that spectators who’ve been on The Son’s side since those initial moments are with him even more when given these scenes to judge. Sympathy for the middle aged-and-advancing fellow infuses the exchanges he has with brothers Jeremy (Pun Bandhu) and Allen (Anderson).
The Treasurer is the study of a beset character whom Friedman plays wrenchingly right through a final in-one talk to patrons that tugs at the heart until the heart cracks. But as a 95-minute intermissionless character study, it stints on aspects that might have been elaborated on. More of brothers Jeremy and Allen would be helpful in fleshing out their relationships. The curious scene during which the son encounters a young married woman (Anderson again), who happily admits she’s a member of the “sky-high” club, certainly seems extraneous. The sky-high reference is, incidentally, a phrase about which the son has no clue. Huh?
Cromer’s production is also sketchy in looks, but here it adds dimension. The son spends much time at a stage-left desk holding a phone and a computer that set designer Laura Jellinek provides. Stagehands silently carry on and cart off other furnishings as needed. Somehow their appearances underline the erosive everyday mundanity that The Son increasingly feels. Lighting designer Bradley King further enhances the gathering agita.
By the final blackout—and the minor flaws notwithstanding—The Treasurer is not only a moving experience but also something of a unique one. Addressing this kind of abiding disconnect between a difficult mother and a conscientious, despite his disaffection, son is new and achingly honest.
Nevertheless, without Friedman’s bold performance, the play wouldn’t have quite the same tough effect—and that’s right down to his final expression. Wait for it. No disappointment there.