Theater: ‘When We Were Young and Unafraid’ starts strong, ends overblown

When We Were Young and Unafraid
Agnes (Cherry Jones, right) alternately comforts and confronts a battered housewife (Zoe Kazan) in MTC’s “When We Were Young and Unafraid.”
Credit: Joan Marcus

Despite some overblown flourishes, like a trap door in the stage, Sarah Treem’s “When We Were Young and Unafraid” begins with promise. It’s 1972. Agnes (Cherry Jones) runs a bed and breakfast on an island off Seattle and, aided by her daughter Penny (Morgan Saylor), hides and shelters battered wives as they begin to construct new lives.

In (through the trap door, of course) walks one such victim, Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan). Her face is bruised and in need of stiches, but she’s hardly down for the count. Initially tentative, she turns out to be quite a handful and a catalyst for chaos. The tension promisingly mounts, but spins out of control. By Act II the drama has degenerated into pure soap opera, complete with an actual pregnancy, a possible pregnancy, a revelation and a predictable budding romance, all accompanied by the requisite histrionics and grandstanding.

As Agnes, the always-reliable Jones seems as sturdy as the Early American furniture in her sitting room, but even she has a breaking point. Kazan, who pulls together bad girl Mary Anne’s many strains — selfish, guileless, self-destructive, needy — shows her seemingly fragile character to be perhaps the stronger of the two. She has more contradictory layers, which Kazan illuminates with perverse intensity. If Agnes carries the play, Mary Anne pushes it along. It’s too bad it doesn’t really go anywhere meaningful.

A product of good dramatic instincts that got lost along the way, “When We Were Young and Unafraid” is a study in dramatic excess, consistently using a torch when a candle would do.

If you go

‘When We Were Young and Unafraid’
Manhattan Theatre Club,
NY City Center Stage I
131 West 55th St.
$95, 212-581-1212,
www.manhattantheatreclub.com



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