In Max Posner’s The Treasurer, a middle-aged man who doesn’t love his mother—and seems to hate himself for it—finds himself in the position of having to take charge of her finances—and her life—as her mental and physical health declines. His mother, Ida (Cheryl McMahon), abandoned him and his two siblings when he was 13 years old to take up with the man she had been having an affair with. The man, a newspaper editor turned one-term congressman, brought purpose and drive to her otherwise humdrum life, and she turned her back on her family in order to carve out a life with excitement and direction. Following the end of her new husband’s political career, the two moved to Manhattan “for a very expensive decade.”
Now she’s widowed, and the three children that she left behind must figure out what comes next. Her finances are in shambles, her house is in foreclosure, and—naturally—she refuses to consider anything other than the Gucci of senior care facilities. The brunt of the work falls on one son in particular—referred to as “the Son” and played here by a gripping Ken Cheeseman—who must now find a way to care for—and pay for—the selfish and materialistic mother he never really knew. She lives in Albany and he in Denver, but the 1,800 miles separating them are not the buffer they once were as his mother drives him to the end of his wits as she approaches the end of hers, as well.
The human dilemma at the center of Posner’s memory play, which will run at the Lyric Stage through March 22, is achingly fascinating, yet the play ultimately fails to ring true. It is especially hard to judge the merits of Posner’s play (which he based on his father’s relationship with his mother) under the weight of Rebecca Bradshaw’s deficient direction.
But the play has its own problems, as well, chief among them how poorly written and unrealistic many of the scenes are. Take, for instance, Ida’s bizarre, long, and personal conversations with strangers, and the Son’s game of truth or dare with a random pregnant woman sitting next to him on an airplane. There is also a metatheatricality and a semiheightened reality to some of The Treasurer that is not finessed enough by Bradshaw. Ida is losing her faculties, yes, but her rambling interactions do not ring true, and they go on far too long.
Part of this has to do with McMahon, who seems miscast in the role. McMahon is a warm, sunny presence who is always a joy to watch on stage. But she comes off as too “granny next door” rather than someone who I believe selfishly left her children, lived a decadent lifestyle in a cosmopolitan city, and shopped at Bergdorf’s (Chelsea Kerl’s costumes do not always help on that front). It is necessary to believe that Ida is accustomed to a lavish lifestyle—for God’s sake, she references having to rotate her art collection in her new, smaller apartment—and simply does not understand why donating thousands of dollars or buying $700 pillows isn’t a necessity. Ida should have an elegance to her, and McMahon is just too—I’m sorry to say—provincial.
Although Ida and the Son are in constant communication throughout the play, they are actually never in the same room—it’s all done by telephone. And it’s important that when the two finally are face to face, which happens late in the play at a Japanese restaurant, that it feels like a watershed moment. Here they are—after all this time, space, and guilt—sitting across the table from one another. The scene still carries poignancy due to Cheeseman and McMahon (whose performance is most impressive here), but the close-quarter staging of the rest of the play (and Kristin Loeffler’s ugly, ineffective set) does not allow this moment to play as it should.
But what is the point of The Treasurer? Should we be trying to understand Ida? Her failure to take any responsibility for the decisions she has made villainizes her. The Son feels guilty for not loving his mother, yet he’s still there for her, and probably won’t be able to retire because of how much money he’s spending on her. If the real story is the way that the Son’s demons are tangled up in his flawed mother—kind of like Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie—then Posner would have found more success if the end of the play didn’t come off so desperately esoteric.
Either way, Posner doesn’t give us enough of a reason to care. Neither, it must be said, does Bradshaw.
THE TREASURER. THROUGH 3.22 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM