Friday, April 26, 2024

Mother Play (Second Stage)

By Harry Forbes

After outstanding Broadway turns in classic plays by Williams and O’Neill, Jessica Lange creates a new role, and delivers another absolutely splendid performance, this time as an alcoholic single mother ruling over her two children with steely Southern charm. They, in turn, are beautifully played by Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger, who each age convincingly from young teens to adulthood. 

Paula Vogel’s skillfully observed semi-autobiographical play is set outside Washington, D.C.’ s beltway from 1964 and over the ensuing decades. We can quickly discern that mother Phyllis’ well-ordered plans for Martha and Carl are destined to go seriously wrong from the get-go. Both her grandiose dreams for her golden boy Carl and her casual dismissal of Martha will soon be turned on their ear as she gleans that the precocious Carl is gay, and so, it later transpires, is Martha. 

The play is a drama, but one not without many sharply comic moments. The whole is deeply affecting, however, and by the end of the play’s 105 minute running time, there were audible sobs at my performance. 

On the lighter side there is a marvelous bit of business involving Carl showing Martha how to walk like a man, so she won’t be hit on by the boys at school, followed a bit later by Phyllis demonstrating how a woman should walk. A later dance scene (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli) provides another highly amusing interlude.  

Later, when Phyllis’ appalling behavior leads to her eventual isolation from Carl and Martha, Lange brilliantly commands the stage in a heart wrenching solo turn, as she struggles to cope with her solitude. 

David Zinn’s scenic design, lighted by Jen Schriever, neatly encompasses the various residences of the peripatetic family, as they move from place to place with their boxes and well-worn furniture.  (Thus the play’s subtitle, “A Play in Five Evictions.”) And with most of the residences beset with roach infestations, Shawn Duan’s witty projection designs gives us the incongruous and somehow delightful image of dancing roaches. 

There’s a canny use of music throughout as Phyllis listens to her favorite songs on the local easy listening station from “The Theme to a Summer Place” to “Moon River,” all of which perfectly capture the mood of the era as well as Phyllis' character.

Tina Landau directs her cast with delicate precision through their respective character and aging transformations, and deftly orchestrates the shifting moods of Vogel’s heartfelt narrative.

(The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street;; through June 16)

Photos by Joan Marcus:

(top) Jessica Lange

(below) Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger

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