Thursday, February 9, 2017

132. Review: THE MOTHER OF INVENTION (seen on February 8, 2017)

“The Windmills of Her Mind”

If anything could be cited as American playwriting’s subject du jour over the past few years it would have to be the crushing problem represented in so many families by a loved one’s struggle with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. Most such plays approach the issue through a seriocomic lens that allows a blend of sorrow and laughter, the latter generated by the gaffes sparked by a deteriorating mind and the humor inherent in how loving but eccentric family members react to the imminent tragedy in their midst.  
James Davis, Isabella Russo. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The most recent entry into the Alzheimer’s sweepstakes is The Mother of Invention, by James Lecesne, who made a splash in 2015 with his one-man play The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. If you saw Colman Domingo’s Dot at the Vineyard a year ago, you’ll recognize in Lecesne’s play a considerable number of similarities, although Dot was about a widowed African-American woman in Philadelphia while Lecesne’s is about a widowed white woman in Central Florida. Lecesne’s play, sorry to say, suffers from the comparison.
Angela Reed, James Davis, Dale Soules. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Each play’s colorfully feisty central character has the same but differently spelled name reflective of her dotty personality. Dot’s Dotty has two daughters, one of them a woman with a prepubescent child, and a gay son who writes about music; The Mother of Invention’s Dottie (Concetta Tomei, appealingly warm and quirky) has two daughters, the one we meet being a woman with a prepubescent child, and a gay son who writes novels. Each play has a colorful female neighbor; each play has a foreign-born young man with a close relationship to the mother, and each play deals with placing mom in an assisted living facility.
Dan Domingues, Angela Reed. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Of course, there are many things that separate the plays, both in style and substance, but the core issue of how the children of a fading parent confront their loved one’s mental deterioration and how the victim refuses to go gently into that good night remains the same. Like Dot, Both plays lean toward situation comedy, although Domingo’s play had far more laughs.

The walls of designer Jo Winiarski’s living room set—where Dottie’s children, Leanne (Angela Reed, perfectly fine) and David (James Davis, sincere), have gathered to pack up and sell or donate her belongings—are composed of packing cartons; as the play progresses, the cartons are gradually removed, suggesting both the dissolution of her beloved possessions and the dismantling of her mind, very little of which the play itself clinically expresses.

That’s because Lecesne’s central dramatic device is to have Dottie present throughout much of the action while in actuality she’s been sent off to stay with her daughter in Tucson until more permanent arrangements can be made. She not only frequently interjects mildly amusing comments into the dialogue between Leanne and David but even carries items on and off, so it takes several minutes to realize she’s not there and that no one hears or sees her, much like the dead couple in those old Topper movies.
Concetta Tomei. Photo: Marina Baranova. 
Dottie may be suffering from severe memory issues, even telling us the strategies she uses to cover them up, but she seems perfectly at ease chatting about her condition and her children’s dilemma. The device is cute for a while but, since she’s not a ghost but someone on the other side of the country, her being here in spirit, so to speak, quickly becomes a matter of diminishing returns.

The overstuffed, 95-minute, intermissionless play throws in the usual eccentricities, including a charming, handsome, sexually voracious, self-confessed grave robber from South America named Frankie Rey (Dan Domingues, outstanding at making silly dialogue believable) with an apocalyptic view of the future; his receipt from Dottie of large sums of money and a share of her house so he can help an indigenous Columbian tribe puts her kids, especially David, in a tizzy. (Be prepared for a gratuitous full-frontal view of the Latin interloper.) A crucial plot element involves a fight between Frankie and David for a journal containing Dottie’s incriminating jottings.
Dan Domingues, Isabella Russo, Concetta Tomei, Angela Reed. Photo: Marina Baranova.
Adding to the clichés is Leanne’s young daughter, Ryder (Isabella Russo, sweet), offering the customary out-of-the-mouths-of-babes wisdom.  Finally, there’s the batty neighbor, Jane (the sandpaper-voiced Dale Soules, always a pleasure), who’s frightened of terrorists and pays close attention to Homeland Security’s color alerts. When she brings a gun into the proceedings she upsets the play’s already uneasy balance between comedy and drama, not to mention plausibility. Soules is also awkwardly cast in a brief, unnecessary scene as a homeless woman who spins a ridiculous tale about Michel LeGrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.”
Concetta Tomei, Dale Soules. Photo: Marina Baranova.
The Mother of Invention is well-cast, nicely acted, efficiently designed (costumes by Paul Marlow, lighting by Daisy Long, sound by Christian Frederickson), and smoothly directed by Tony Speciale. But, given its lack of originality and too frequent triteness, what it lacks most clearly is the magic of invention.


Abingdon Theatre Company
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Through February 26