She shops at Zabar’s, does Pilates on Columbus Avenue and resides comfortably in a prewar high rise between West End and Riverside, where she gossips about private lives as though they were front-page news.
That she could be any number of women, of some advanced years and moderate means, who live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is suggested by the taxonomic title “Let’s Call Her Patty,” a new play by Zarina Shea that opened on Tuesday night at the Claire Tow Theater, overlooking its subject’s natural habitat.
Close your eyes to picture the type, and the production’s star, Rhea Perlman, may spring directly from a sidewalk crack, with her featherweight frame, babka-colored curls and voice like gravel and honey.
Patty is introduced to the audience, chopping onions behind a long and luxe marble-topped kitchen island, by her niece Sammy (Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer). Scene-setting banter between the two demonstrates their shorthand intimacy, and Patty’s reflexive tendency to make other people’s business her own (and, more specifically, about her). That notably includes the triumphs but mostly troubles of Patty’s daughter Cecile (Arielle Goldman), an artist who struggles with body image and addiction.
Patty’s maternal relationships with Cecile and Sammy are the play’s sources of conflict (Patty’s offstage husband, Hal, we’re told, is “fine”). When Cecile, who appears onstage only in brief interludes, falls out of touch, Patty considers it personal punishment, simultaneously convinced that she’s to blame for her daughter’s problems and defensive at her own accusation. Sammy, a font of patience as she is of exposition, gently suggests, “I think this is not about you.”
Of course, she’s right. Patty is presented as a quintessential Jewish mother, but the qualities she exemplifies are not culturally exclusive; anyone who recognizes her narcissism from their family dynamics might appreciate a trigger warning. And yet, the play’s own narrow focus on Patty works to its detriment.
The matriarch is little more than an amalgam of stereotypes; that there is truth to them is hardly a revelation. But the play does little to question or disrupt the preconceived notions it assumes New York audiences will have about “an Upper West Side lady” like Patty. Nor does Perlman mine much unseen depth from a character exclusively defined by circumstance.
The production, from the director Margot Bordelon, confines Patty behind her cutting board, where she chops imaginary onions without shedding a tear for much of the play’s brief 70 minutes. If this is a character study, Patty’s pungent, messy center is largely withheld from view.
Goldman’s Cecile occasionally drags a folding chair onstage to insert herself into her mother’s narrative, trembling like a frazzled live wire. Unfortunately, Cecile is kept at arm’s length from a story in which she seems to have the most compelling inner life. Sammy is likewise sketched mostly in relation to her aunt; that Sammy’s mother-in-law is near death is relevant only insofar as it keeps her from being with Patty.
Patty’s co-op apartment, one of her primary distinguishing features, is suggested with chic austerity by Kristen Robinson’s set, reflecting a fixation on wealth that the play seems unsure whether it means to critique. Pivots in focus and time are punctuated with abrupt shifts in lighting (by Oliver Wason) and sound (Sinan Refik Zafar) that drum up tension and surprise the drama otherwise lacks.
“Let’s Call Her Patty” gestures toward an oral tradition of storytelling that aims to preserve local, and often endangered, histories. Sammy’s narration acknowledges the Lenape tribe, who once lived on the land now occupied by New York City, and suggests that one day it will all be underwater. Dutifully recording for posterity the era of the affluent and self-flagellating mother seems to be as much an act of ambivalence as of love.
Let’s Call Her Patty
Through Aug. 27 at the Claire Tow Theater, Manhattan; lct.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.