The giant flame-colored tree looming over the set of The Velocity of Autumn stands as a rather on-the-nose but beautiful metaphor for our central character’s current state. Like the tree’s leaves, Alexandra (Estelle Parsons) is nearing the end of her life but insisting on going out in one final burst of vibrancy.
In fact, at the beginning of Eric Coble’s two-person play, she’s in danger of going up in flames?quite literally. When Alexandra’s son Christopher (Stephen Spinella) climbs up the tree and through the window of his 79-year-old mother’s Brooklyn apartment, he finds her armed with a lighter and a bottle of flammable liquid, threatening to blow up the whole building if he doesn’t get the hell out. The entire living room set is rigged with bottles of her late husband’s film developing fluid, which Alexandra informs Christopher is ”more combustible than gasoline.” The front door is sealed with duct tape and barricaded with various items of furniture. The old lady is holding herself hostage, and Christopher is the family’s choice to negotiate with this particular terrorist. She refuses to leave the premises since her two older children, parked outside, intend to move her into a retirement facility?a reality she considers worse than death.
As explosive as the setup sounds, Coble’s script takes on a tone that’s more playful than menacing. After surviving the initial verbal attacks?”You turned into a man,” she tells her son, ”a skinny old raggedy man”?Christopher finds a way to connect with his stubborn mom. It becomes clear that their mother-son dynamic is as volatile as the Molotov cocktails surrounding them. In the course of the play, the two go from combatants to co-conspirators to parent and child, starting the cycle over again. They both accuse the other of abandonment. They affirm themselves as the two creative weirdos of the family. They listen to each other’s litany of complaints?hers about the indignities of aging (”Another friend dies. Another body part shrivels”), and his about the indignities of being a not-quite-actualized artist in middle age. Their familiarity with each other’s conversational rhythms gradually returns after so many years apart.
Parsons is always the blazing focal point of the show, even when she’s sharing the stage with Spinella and a glowingly orange tree. With seeming effortlessness, she plays a woman who’s mind is failing her despite flashes of wit and rage and pettiness and compassion. Spinella plays her foil lovingly?both as an actor and character, he can’t contain his delight and amusement with his costar. Both performances are engaging enough to power through what’s otherwise well-worn terrain. For a breezy 90 minutes in Parsons’ company, we’re happy to be held hostage. B+