If 17-year-old Matt Bayer had to choose a Stephen Sondheim song to describe his mother Helen, it would doubtless be “You Could Drive A Person Crazy.”  Helen may once have been a happy and healthy wife and mother, but in recent years multiple sclerosis has bound her to a wheelchair, sent her ex-husband into the arms of a younger woman, and made living with her the proverbial “living hell,” at least for Matt.  The poor kid can’t even make it out of their apartment to see a movie. Mom will do anything to keep Matt by her side tonight, and if she has her way, forever.

This is the setup for David Marshall Grant’s funny, thought-provoking, and quite unpredictable Pen, a family drama with a Twilight Zone twist, now being given a terrific West Coast Premiere by Theatre 40.

Before the lights have even come up on Jeff G. Rack’s New York apartment set, David B. Marling’s sensational sound design has set us smack dab in the middle of one of the most tumultuous years of the 20th Century, 1969, with an audio collage of news reports, Top 40 hits, TV themes, and voices from the 60s.

Mom (Jill Remez) is in a bitch of a mood tonight and Matt (Dennis Bendersky) is caught in the line of fire.  It doesn’t help that Dad (Robert Mackenzie) has a new 32-year-old girlfriend, and Matt’s insistence that “Mom, she’s old, okay?” just rubs salt in wheelchair-bound Helen’s mood. Then there’s the matter of her missing pen, an oh so special pen designed by NASA for space travel, a pen that can write even when held upside down, a pen which Helen absolutely needs for her crossword puzzles, which she solves lying down.  Helen won’t let Matt out of the apartment until he finds her pen, and besides, she reasons, “You can’t go see a movie by yourself. People will think you’re desperate.” (Matt’s response?  “Well, I am!”)

No wonder Matt can’t wait to go off to college, and as far away from Mom as possible, though if Mom gets her way, Matt will be studying well within the reach of her apron strings and living with her until … well, until forever.

Then, on Christmas Eve, a few too many whisky sours having made Helen even more unbearable than usual, something supernatural happens to mother and son, a Rod Serlingesque twist that ends Act 1 with a collective audience gasp.

And in Act 2…

To say any more would be to spoil Pen’s many post-intermission surprises.

Playwright Grant is best known as a successful stage, TV, and film actor, but his freshman play Snakebit introduced audiences to a talented writer with a special gift for depicting human lives in crisis.  Here, he provides his trio of actors with dream roles, most especially Remez, who (without revealing too much) gets to play three very different Helens over the course of the evening.

Pen’s dialog crackles with cleverness and ironic humor.  When Matt informs his mother that his dad is buying him a car, Helen’s response is, “There are people who don’t have enough food, and he’s buying you a car?”  Even worse is the fact that Jerry’s offer came at a friend’s funeral.  “The body wasn’t even cold yet and you were going car shopping?!” When uberliberal Mom rants on about Bob Hope’s sending Vietnam soldiers off to their deaths, Matt lets her know that “I’m not going to college!  I’m going to Vietnam … and watch Bob Hope!” And when Matt excitedly informs his mother of a special MS diet he’d read about in Popular Science, all Helen can do is snap back that “science isn’t popular!”

Reviews of previous productions of Pen (in New York and at the Guthrie) have expounded on the significance of the play’s title (and the missing NASA pen).  Frankly, I didn’t get it.  But no matter.  Pen’s many surprise twists easily keep an audience engrossed, and give the cast some of the best roles they’re ever likely to play.

Remez has a field day with bitchy Helen, and even more fun with Helen’s first Act 2 transformation, a coquettish southern vamp virtually unrecognizable under platinum blonde wig, eyes masked by Jackie O sunglasses.   Remez’s scenes with 17-year-old Bendersky (yes, they actually cast a teenager as a teenager!) crackle with bitchery and perfect timing.  Bendersky is most definitely a discovery, and a young actor with a future, giving as well as he gets with the more experienced Remez and an equally fine Mackenzie. The latter, who did tour-de-force work in last winter’s Another Vermeer, creates a very real portrait of a man in the midst of a midlife change.

Rack, best known at Theatre 40 for his excellent set designs, proves himself an actor’s director, ably guiding his cast in their comedic/dramatic roles. Ellen Monocroussos lighting enhances the play’s supernatural elements, and Christine Cover-Ferro’s costumes evoke the late 60s just as well as her concurrent Lost In Yonkers costumes evoke the 40s.  Rack’s Lost In Yonkers set has been effectively simplified for Pen, and allows for relatively swift changes of locale, facilitated by Marling’s 60s soundtrack.

Though the metaphysical complexities of its titular writing instrument whooshed over my head, I thoroughly enjoyed Pen, its fine performances, and its many twists and turns. 

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.
–Steven Stanley
August 6, 2008
Photo: Ed Krieger

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