Reality test number one: Does it seem reasonable to you that a 25-year-old with an M.A. in music who's determined - as she repeatedly tells us - to become a great composer (right up there with Mozart) would put her dream on hold in order to support her rising-rock star boyfriend? Sure, she might bow to the need for a bread-and-butter job - in the case of Amanda Blue (Gillian Jacobs), writing jingles - but if you gotta compose, you gotta compose (or dance or sculpt or whatever your particular driving passion might be). Dividing your time doesn't necessitate becoming a self-sacrificing help mate gaga over the prospect of a gainful marriage. Score: Materialism one, credibility (not to mention any pretext of feminism) zero.
The problem premise of A Feminine Ending by Sarah Treem - herself a recent Yale School of Drama grad - is that we're supposed to like and sympathize with Amanda, who seems to imagine herself the first young woman (or perhaps human) ever to be caught up in the conflicting demands of career vs.personal life.
Jacobs's pile driving performance does not make the task of liking Amanda any easier. The urgent emotional tenor that she sets up in the first, framing monologue, while engaging at first, unfortunately never abates. Relentless gesticulations - pointed fingers, chopping forearms - accent every point, in concert with equally tiresome vocal stresses. Arc? It's an onslaught. Treem makes clever, if overworked, use of musical metaphors (such as the convention that yields the play's title), so it's all the more disappointing that Jacobs's interpretation - under Blair Brown's direction - seems deaf when it comes to dynamics.
Primarily responsibility, however, resides with Treem's script, which - sprinkled with writerly phrases so salient and self-congratulatory they might as well be highlighted - just keeps beggaring belief.
Reality test number two: Would the arrival of a child have constituted a reasonable excuse, as of the early 80s, for a woman to abandon all artistic aspiration? Just one child, mind you, and Amanda's mother, Kim (Marsha Mason, whose eyes still twinkle amid an all-but-immobilized face) packed away her paintbrush for good. Way to lay on the guilt, Mom - and while you're at it, throw in some truly boundary-breaching revelations about the disappointments of your marriage (Richard Masur does a nice job as Kim's spurned spouse, who's something of a country philosopher, nihilist school).
Amanda's mom is a monster, but neither Treem nor Mason seem to have got the news. Mason plays her alternately dithery-cute and I-am-postmenopausal-woman-hear-me-roar. Again and again, Treem gives in to her penchant for preciosity: momentum comes to a standstill, for instance, when Kim launches into an extended plaint about how even squirrels give her no respect.
There are only a handful of scenes - in a 90-minute, intermission-less stretch - during which the stage truly comes alive, and that's when Joe Paulik appears as Amanda's oddball not-quite-boyfriend from high school. Billy - at least, as Paulik plays him, with intriguing affect and timing - is an original. For a few brief heady moments, the script skitters off its tracks, and we have that thrilling sense that anything could happen.