Tuesday, March 25, 2014

257. Review of MOTHERS AND SONS (March 22, 2014)


In MOTHERS AND SONS, Terrence McNally’s heartfelt but imperfect new play at Broadway's John Golden Theatre, the playwright revisits his preoccupation with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s; it is, in fact, a 90-minute, intermissionless, expansion of his 1988 (televised in 1990) one-act, “Andre’s Mother,” in which Cal, the lover of a gay man who has died, expresses his anger toward the man’s homophobic mother. In MOTHERS AND SONS the mother, nameless and silent in 1988, is a fully developed character, Katharine Gerard, played by the redoubtable Tyne Daly, who pays a surprise visit to Cal Porter’s (Frederick Weller) spacious Central Park West apartment (excellently designed by John Lee Beatty, with lovely lighting by Jeff Croiter), with its great view across the park to Fifth Avenue. She and Cal haven't seen each other since 1994, at the memorial service for her son (and Cal's lover), Andre, who died of AIDS. Katharine has decided to return to Cal Andre's journal. She soon discovers that Cal, a prosperous money manager, is now married to another man, the 15-years younger Will Ogden (Bobby Steggert), a would-be novelist, with whom he has a six-year-old son, Bud Ogden-Porter (Grayson Taylor).

From left: Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor, Tyne Daly. Photo: Joan Marcus

            The play, which premiered last year at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania, proceeds to chronicle the contrast between people like, Katharine, with their conservative attitudes and beliefs, and the middle-class gay world of 2014, in which marriage and the adoption of children by gay couples is increasingly common, and where happy families, like that of Cal, Will, and Bud, flourish while conventional marriages, like Katharine’s, are often mired in bitterness (she hated her recently deceased husband). Yet Katharine, feeling the burden of loneliness and guilt, must struggle to overcome her prejudices and homophobic attitudes (she insists that homosexuality is a choice), despite all the evidence to the contrary presented in the perfectly manicured world represented by Cal and Will.

            The characters come off as stand-ins for attitudes, designed to bring sympathy and understanding to each side of the equation. Katherine, well coiffed, and expensively dressed, including a fur coat (bought second-hand), is a Dallas matron (originally from Port Chester, New York, like the playwright’s mother, who also moved to Texas); she seems quite articulate and well-enough educated, yet she has no idea of what Cal means when he says he met Will online. False notes like this hint that the playwright may be more concerned with what his characters represent than their existence as real people.

            Although Andre, a promising actor, died 20 years ago, at 29, she continues to hold a grudge against Cal, as if Andre’s illness and death, not to mention his sexual leanings, were Cal’s fault; on  the other hand, the sensitive Cal, despite his insistently polite attempts to accommodate Katharine’s prejudices, has revelations of his own about Andre to disclose, especially when passages from Andre's journal eventually are read. Meanwhile, the somewhat edgy Will, confronted by all this revisiting of the past, resents Katharine's social backwardness but is also touched by jealousy; the presence of the precocious little Bud, who asks Katharine if he can call her Grandma, will serve as an emotional catalyst to help resolve all the issues on the table. Regardless of the moment by moment differences of opinion in the talky and relatively plotless play you know pretty soon how everything will conclude.

            MOTHERS AND SONS is somewhat predictable, which is not to say it doesn’t often touch your heartstrings. It displays various weakness of the well-made play, such as having one or the other adult characters leave the stage for unusually long times (what is Ms. Daly doing in the bathroom all that time?) when it’s necessary to have an extensive two-person scene. And not once does an offstage character enter in the midst of a heated conversation, but only when the subject being considered is losing steam.

            McNally's dialogue, as usual, is smart, literate, and often funny, and the dramatist's love for opera is apparent throughout in the scattered references and background music (sound design by Nevin Steinberg). Various issues related to gay parenting arise, including the (satirically stated) notion of raising a kid to be gay, or what politically correct words a child should be taught (Inuit, yes; Eskimo, never). There's a conversation between Katharine and Cal about which word a gay male spouse should use to refer to his partner. Cal riffs on his favoring the word "husband" to refer to Will, but, for some reason, no mention is made of what Will prefers to call Cal. Does the word "wife" even enter into consideration?  

             Sheryl Kaller’s direction is brisk enough and she gets strong performances from her cast, although Ms. Daly and Mr. Weller don't always escape certain actorish mannerisms. Ms. Daly has a tendency to react to pieces of important information with wide-eyed stares, while Mr. Weller’s lines occasionally have a stagy intonation. Mr. Steggert is more consistently natural than his partners. Master Taylor is cute.

            A few blocks away, on Theatre Row, a revival of Christopher Durang’s 1982 BEYOND THERAPY, with its farcical depiction of a therapist unable to process the idea of a gay male couple living together, shows how far American society has come in three decades with regard to homosexual relationships. In MOTHERS AND SONS, Broadway has its first play about a gay married couple. Thirty years from now, such characters will undoubtedly be presented more complexly; at the moment, though, he has written a moderately effective, sometimes touching, frequently humorous, but a little too pat portrait of such people.