Review Roundup: ‘The Velocity of Autumn’

The Velocity of Autumn, Eric Coble’s two-character play, opened at the Booth Theatre on April 21. Oscar winner Estelle Parsons (Bonnie and Clyde, Roseanne) stars as Alexandra, a 79-year-old painter threatening to blow up her Brooklyn brownstone with improvised Molotov cocktails unless her children stop threatening to move her to a nursing home. Two-time Tony-winner Stephen Spinella (Angels in America) plays her estranged son, Christopher, who returns home after several years’ absence to negotiate a settlement. The play is directed by Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. where this production was presented last fall.

Most critics were less than enthusiastic, labeling the comedy-drama slight and clichéd. David Cote of Time Out New York called it “anemic,” while Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post called it “only mildly entertaining.” A minority including Charles Isherwood of the New York Times, Jennifer Farrar of Associated Press and Stephan Lee of Entertainment Weekly thought the skillful performances of the stars compensated for the overly-familiarity of the script. Here are excerpts from the major reviewers.

Stephen Spinella and Estelle Parsons take a bow during curtain call at the opening night for "The Velocity of Autumn" (Photo: Andrew Toth/Getty Images)

Stephen Spinella and Estelle Parsons take a bow during curtain call at the opening night for “The Velocity of Autumn” (Photo: Andrew Toth/Getty Images)

 

Charles Isherwood, New York Times
“In the hands of a lesser actress, Alexandra might come across as a generically feisty old lady, a more bohemian version of, say, Estelle Getty’s Sophia on The Golden Girls. But Ms. Parsons’s starchy, sentiment-free performance never allows us to get too comfortable in her presence.”

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
“Toggling between glib one-liners and florid speeches, Eric Coble’s two-hander adds nada to this topical conversation, along the way wasting a meaty subject, the talents of Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella and the audience’s time and money.”

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“Both actors are perfectly fine but watching them duke it out is only mildly entertaining—the play’s brush strokes are too broad to paint a compelling portrait.”

Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press
“Playwright Eric Coble presents the aging decay of the human mind and body as a necessary process replete with mordantly humorous and empathetic moments. He lightens the potentially depressing subject matter by providing plenty of comedic zingers to both Academy Award-winner Parsons—here powerful and ingratiating—and to her co-star, the equally skilled Stephen Spinella.”

Linda Winer, Newsday
“The production, a success at Washington’s Arena Stage, has been directed with an admirable minimum of sentimentality by that theater’s artistic director, Molly Smith. Even with actors the caliber of Parsons and Spinella, however, this is a once-over-lightly insult to a subject that deserves so much more than a mechanical showcase for gold-standard performers.”

David Cote, Time Out New York
“They spar, they bond, they reminisce in real time with the requisite acting-class–friendly monologues. But it’s not a good sign when you’re praying that Granny gets her Zippo to work.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
“Both bring wonderful grace notes, both comic and dramatic, to their roles: Parsons, besides delivering her snappy one-liners with the expert timing of a seasoned vaudevillian, movingly conveys the elderly woman’s vulnerability…Spinella matches her note for note.”

Stephan Lee, Entertainment Weekly
“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.”

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal
“Eric Coble breaks the U.S.record for clichés per minute in The Velocity of Autumn, his new cranky-codger two-character comedy. Near-senile old lady? Check. Estranged gay son with unfinished emotional business? Check. Hackneyed plot? Check.”

Steven Suskind, Huffington Post
“Stephen Spinella plays the lost-soul-of-a-son, making his “deliciously funny” (?) entrance by climbing a tree. That tree, of fiery autumn orange, dominates Eugene Lee’s set and the play and you might from time to time find your attention wandering from branch to branch.”

Matt Windman, AM New York
“Parsons paints a lively but grounded portrait of this quirky, frenzied woman while Spinella, as the far less interesting character, graciously downplays his performance in order to let Parsons take the spotlight. They make a nice pair. Perhaps they can come back to Broadway in a more interesting play.”