Sin and the City — Sarah Jessica Parker and Blythe Danner Reunite Onstage

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18 Nov 2013

Michael Stahl-David and Sarah Jessica Parker
Michael Stahl-David and Sarah Jessica Parker
Joan Marcus

Sarah Jessica Parker returns to the New York stage for the first time in 12 years in Amanda Peet's new play The Commons of Pensacola.

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Is there life after sex and the not-so-single city girl? Yes, and, if you're Sarah Jessica Parker, it's called motherhood. And film producer. And ballet board member. And member of the Presidential Committee on Arts and Humanities. And bag and shoe designer. And, in at least one instance — Manolo Blahnik's line of The SJP shoe.

"I tend to do many things at once," understated Parker. "I've been working on a shoe collection. I have a company that produces for HBO, and right now we're in the middle of producing a documentary series on the New York City Ballet. I'm on the board of the NYCB and work a lot with the Presidential Committee on Arts and Humanities. And I have three children to take care of."

What we haven't seen lately is actress. Save for some "Glee" guest shots, a voiceover in "Escape from Planet Earth," and a couple of star-turns in all-star film-clusters, she hasn't acted much since the two movie spinoffs of her hit "Sex and the City" series.

She hasn't been seen on a NYC stage in 12 years, either — not since she trod Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I in Wonder of the World. Now, she's returning to that same stage to star in The Commons of Pensacola, currently in previews for a Nov. 21 opening. It's directed by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow, who first hired Parker for a Charles Strouse musical revue, By Strouse, in 1977.

Making it even more like Old Home Week, she will be playing opposite Blythe Danner. They last appeared together 18 years ago on that same stage as unconventional rivals for Charles Kimbrough's attention and affection in A.R. Gurney's delightful Sylvia. Parker played the title role, a cunning canine that comes between the couple.

"That play was a very special experience for me," Parker recalled, "so I'm really excited about working again with Blythe, whom I have continued to know pretty well over the years. I think that she'll bring all sorts of great qualities to this role."

One thing Danner will bring are the graceful, patrician airs of an actress who had once been Tracy Lord of well-heeled Main Line in The Philadelphia Story on Broadway. A similar air surrounds her Judith in Pensacola, who, by any other name, is Ruth Madoff after the fall — having fled, humiliated, to a tiny Florida retirement condo, The Commons.

Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Commons of Pensacola is the latest in a growing genre of Madoff dramadies — swan-dives from grace à la Bernard L. Madoff's $65 billion Ponzi scheme disaster. This focuses on the fallout of the family, as did Steven Levenson's recent The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin. Woody Allen's recent film, "Blue Jasmine," gives Ruth Madoff a Blanche DuBois story track.

This new postscript is the work of another actress diversifying — Amanda Peet, who can't figure out the sudden popularity of the Madoff plot-peg. "I think I was just looking for some excuse to write a mother-daughter play, and this is what came to me," she offered. "My mom is 72 and single. It's a very special relationship when you have a parent who is both elderly and single — so I guess that I relate to that part of it. I was sort of interested in exploring the responsibilities that go along with that."

Did the prospect of writing herself a good role also prompt this new creative turn? "I think, in the very beginning, it did," she allowed, "then I pretty quickly realized it would benefit the play to have someone else play the daughter. Soon after I started writing, I was trying to think of women in their early 40s who are funny, gorgeous, and Jewish — who can act on stage. Sarah Jessica was a no-brainer.… Honestly, if you had a choice between Amanda Peet and Sarah Jessica Parker, who'd you pick?"

As a daughter of the disgraced, Parker found a lot to play here. "It's an interesting role, and there's a lot of moral ambiguity in the play that I'm curious about. The position that my character takes is very compelling. It's an interesting argument that she weighs.

"She comes to see her mother in Pensacola to try to convince her to do a documentary series. She thinks it's an opportunity to apologize for the unthinkable hardships her father has caused. The siblings have been affected — some can argue, not nearly as much as the victims of the crime, but the collateral damage just among the family members is pretty severe. In the case of my character, she's already rudderless. It's a story of people trying to survive in a brand-new environment."

This is Peet's second play — the first was condemned to her bottom desk-drawer, unproduced — and she has already started on a third. "At this point in my career," she said, "It's more fun to write because — not to sound whiny, but there aren't that many interesting roles for women in my age group. I was writing quite a lot in college and had some encouragement there to continue, but then I got sidetracked."

Ah, stardom can do that to a novice writer, but look at all the roles a writer can play!

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Nilaja Sun, Zoe Levin, Ali Marsh, Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker
Photo by Joan Marcus