By Alexander Tsebelis
Eric Coble’s “The Velocity of Autumn” is a small play, a persistent flickering threatening to become an inferno. There are only two characters — Alexandra, a mother who has filled her house with molotov cocktails, and her son, Chris. “You can’t burn down a Park Slope brownstone,” he tells her.
Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella play the family duo. Chris and Alexandra know each other well and sometimes even listen to each other, something that cannot be said for Alexandra’s other children, who want to put her in a nursing home.
Chris has been sent by his sister to make a last-ditch attempt to convince his mother to relent and move into a nursing home before the police are called — by neighbors or other concerned onlookers — to take her away.
Alexandra is crazy, but not in the way her children think she is. Instead, she is being driven insane because she is still in full possession of her mental faculties but her body will no longer do what she needs it to do. The audience learns that she can no longer paint as she used to. Chris is an artist as well, currently working out of New Mexico on something his mother warns “sounds dangerously close to folk art.”
Parsons is dignified and sharp, falling apart even as she pulls herself together. Spinella is another set of contradictions, a gay Brooklynite in the body of a New Mexico rancher. He has never fit in, he tells his mother. “How could you not fit in?” she responds, “It’s New York.”
Director Molly Smith expertly handles Coble’s script, walking the line between rapid, humorously morbid back-and-forth and lengthy monologues about permanence, creation and destruction.
After an angry phone call from his brother-in-law, Chris slips over to the dark side, screaming at Alexandra. Chris claims that he will burn the house down and that they are going down together, mother and son. The audience laughs and applauds uproariously, sharing an almost inexpressible glee.
The spectacle of the theater often calls for pyrotechnics, but “The Velocity of Autumn” has something different in mind. This play seems like the fuse of a bomb when in reality it is a candle, dwindling toward its own extinguishment. This family must learn the hard way that sometimes it is better to fade away than to blow out.
“The Velocity of Autumn” is playing at the Booth Theater, 222 W. 45th St., through May 4.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, May 1 print edition. Alexander Tsebelis is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com.