Not even the Midas Touch of a Cherry Jones performance can save “When We Were Young and Unafraid,” an overwrought feminist drama receiving its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway space at City Center.
Sarah Treem, best known as a television writer, examines a secret safe house for abused women in the early 1970s, just as Roe v. Wade was about to make headlines.
As it begins, it is late at night and Agnes (Jones), the hostess of a bed and breakfast, is with her teenage daughter Penny (Morgan Saylor) in the kitchen. A seemingly normal conversation about whether or not Penny will go to the prom is interrupted by a knock from a hidden underground door.
Out comes Mary Anne (Zoe Kazan), who has run away from her husband is in immediate of shelter and stitches for her battered face. While Mary Anne heals, she gives Penny advice about how to attract the attention of boys, which leads to Penny losing her independent identity.
Another unexpected visitor is a confident and handy young African-American woman (Cherise Boothe) attached to the growing feminist movement.
In spite of a promising and intriguing start, the play, as directed by Pam MacKinnon (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), descends into a diffuse cavalcade of clichés, undeveloped characters and melodramatic revelations.
Jones brings the same sense of bravery in spite of challenging circumstances that characterized her celebrated performances in “Doubt” and this past season’s revival of “The Glass Menagerie.”
Kazan (“Ruby Sparks”), who has a long history with MTC, gives a surprisingly underwhelming performance that could be a result of the poor script.
If you go: “When We Were Young and Unfraid” plays at City Center through Aug. 10. 131 W. 55th St., manhattantheatreclub.com.