In “The Property,” a new play by Ben Josephson and directed by Robert Kalfin, opening this month at Manhattan’s Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, Rachel Botchan plays Irene, a woman driven to well-meaning but high-handed ends to secure her family’s future.
The play tells the story of Irene, her current, past, and potential future loves, and the teenage son that she stifles despite meaning well. Fearful of the erosion of her family’s security, she seeks to build it a new foundation. First, she commandeers her husband’s hideout, a garden cottage that he loves, and rents it out – to a teacher she finds appealing, no less. Then, she convinces her ex-husband, an estranged and shadowy figure in her son’s life, to set him up with a job that will be a stepping-stone to a lucrative future. She pressures her son into taking the job despite his reluctance. The events that ensue transform all five individuals, making them all strangers to their past selves.
“The Property” is a play that embodies something Jean Shepherd once said about Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns” – that it displays all of humanity’s foibles and eccentricities. By trying to build her son up, Irene sets in motion events that will break him down. Like a Gardner play, Ben Josephson’s work shows the irony of people’s good intentions leading to ruin.
Asked what drew her to the central part of Irene, Rachel Botchan cited director Robert Kalfin as a creative magnet. “He and I worked together years ago on quite a few projects and he’s a wonderful director, and was a mentor of mine when I was just starting off in the business,” she said. The opportunity to once again work with Kalfin led her to jump at an inquiry from casting director Irene Stockton.
Botchan was also drawn to the Ben Josephson script for its exploration of Irene as a powerful woman. “What drew me to the project other than working with Robert Kalfin was that I liked that it was a story about a mother, a strong mother and an independent woman. I think those are stories that one doesn’t often see onstage, though maybe that’s changing. Irene is a survivor, and she’s in a lot of ways fighting for her family, certainly for her son and their security.” Irene is indeed an indomitable force in the play. When it comes to her family’s security, she gives no quarter.
In Irene’s pursuit of security, she upends the lives of those closest to her. Asked if some might see her as an antihero, Botchan said: “When I first read, it, I thought, she’s certainly flawed, and … I felt kind of protective of the character! I didn’t want to see her as a villain. So much of the time mothers get blamed for the child’s transgressions or problems. I don’t want to tell that story. I try not to judge the characters that I play, and I don’t want to make her likeable for the sake of being likeable because I want to be likeable.” Botchan maintained that though some might see Irene as an antihero, she did not approach the character in this way. Irene’s force of will and indomitable pursuit of what she believes is right make her a fascinating and refreshing character.
Ben Josephson’s writing crystallizes the timeless conflict between freedom and exploration and security. According to Botchan, “So much of the play is about modern real estate and the sacrifices and choices we make because our material world is difficult. Irene’s made a lot of choices because she wants that security, that stability.” Irene is a woman who curtailed her artistic pursuits in order to become a bank manager. Her self-stifling actions in pursuit of security will no doubt ring true to the audience.
Questions of what Irene could have been and whether she has made the right choices in her life run throughout the play. In order to build her iron fortress, she had to tear her creative self down. Botchan reflected on Irene’s struggle to balance work and art, saying, “I hope that, as women, we have more choices now than we once did, and it’s certainly always a balance. I would hope that people would come and see something of themselves in the play, or something they could relate to, and I think there’s a lot that is relatable in this.”
Are Irene’s actions justified? Botchan says, “Ultimately, what she does is what she thinks is the right thing, and maybe is the right thing. Who knows?”
“The Property” will play from June 16 to July 14, 2018 (opening June 21) at the Clurman Theatre, on 412 W 42nd Street. Performances will be Tue at 7:00 PM, Wed-Sat at 8:00 PM; matinees Sat at 2:00 PM & Sun at 3:00 PM, with no performances July 1-4. For tickets, call the box office (Telecharge) at (212) 239-6200, or visit www.thepropertyplay.com or www.telecharge.com.