September 26, 2013 | by Patrick Folliard
Maintaining mystery
Estelle Parsons, Alexandra, Stephen Spinella, Chris, Velocity of Autumn, Arena Stage, theater

Estelle Parsons as Alexandra and Stephen Spinella as Chris in “The Velocity of Autumn’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. It runs through Oct. 20. (Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy Arena)

‘The Velocity of Autumn’

Through Oct. 20

Arena Stage

1101 Sixth Street, SW

$40-90

202-488-3300

Arenastage.org

Broadway star Stephen Spinella almost never leaves New York City to work.

“I’ll only go for incredibly special situations,” he says. “I love my apartment. I have a great support system of friends. I’m just not a happy camper outside of New York. It’s got to be something really great to tempt me.”

Playing opposite Academy Award-winning actress Estelle Parsons in Arena Stage’s “The Velocity of Autumn” is one of those impossible-to-refuse situations.

“Last winter I got a call from Molly Smith [Arena’s artistic director and ‘Velocity’s’ director] offering me the job,” says Spinella, who is gay. “I asked why they’d reached out to me. Molly said I was Parsons’ first choice to play her son. You don’t say no to that.”

Penned by Cleveland-based playwright Eric Coble, the two-character play focuses on 79-year-old Alexandra, who is experiencing the early signs of dementia. Holed up in her Brooklyn brownstone with a cache of homemade explosives, she threatens to blow up the house and herself rather than rethink a less independent living arrangement. It’s then that her estranged gay son Chris is brought in to mediate.

Spinella, widely known for his brilliant Tony Award-winning performances as Prior Walter (a gay man with AIDS) in “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Angels in America: Perestroika,” won’t reveal much — he believes an audience should experience a play blind. But he will say that in 90 uninterrupted minutes, Chris and Alexandra must find out where they’ve been, where they are now and how they’re going to resolve her issues. It’s a lot to cover.

In real life, Spinella’s 90-year-old mother suffers from dementia. She lives in a care facility in Arizona. But unlike his mother, says Spinella, “Alexandra is still very alert and aware. She’s an artist and very self-reliant. Her character is processing what is happening to her and what she wants to do. That’s a big part of what the play is about.”

And while we’re told Spinella’s character is gay, it’s mentioned rather offhandedly. The straight playwright Coble, says he was intrigued with the idea of Chris’ sexuality not being the focal point.

“So often when being gay is used as a dramatic device it’s the entire focus of the character,” Coble says. “I wanted to write a character who’s not struggling with his sexuality. There are other reasons why he needed to get out of New York City and live far from his mother and more conventionally successful siblings.”

Spinella concurs: “The fact that he’s gay is almost completely unimportant to the play. It’s a minor revelation. When he left home, it was probably more important but it’s essentially dissolved in the way that it has for so many of us in this country.”

For Coble, having Parsons (who won her Oscar for “Bonnie and Clyde” and hilariously played Bev on “Roseanne” for a decade) and Spinella bring his characters to life has been a joy and slightly unnerving. “They’re so good and so smart,” he says. “Their ‘truthometers’ are very high — they have a way at getting at the kernel of truth in every moment. It’s an incredible thing to see and experience.”

And Spinella is rhapsodic about 85-year-old Parsons: “She has that frank New England aspect. It’s great for the character. She’s always surprising — incredibly smart and sensitive with a steel trap mind. She and her husband Peter are both like jocks. They cycle, walk, swim and hike. They’re also fun — really wonderful people.”

Next year, Spinella can be seen HBO’s movie version of Larry Kramer’s seminal AIDS play “The Normal Heart.” He describes the experience as fantastic and intense. His part (Sanford) is small but important. “Early in the play his KS lesions are revealed in the doctor’s office,” says Spinella. “And later, in a newly added scene set in a hospital, he is wild with dementia, calling for his dog. He totally loses it and falls apart.”

But for today, Spinella is happily immersed in “Velocity.” When the show closes next month, he returns to New York City, that place he hates to leave.

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