by Cory Conley · April 1, 2014
At first glance, it feels a bit unforgiving to complain about Terrence McNally's heartfelt new Broadway play Mothers and Sons. After all, the story is digestible enough, the central performance (from Tyne Daly) is luminous, and the play offers a true catharsis while dealing with some important contemporary themes. Plenty of theatergoers might even find it revelatory and exciting to witness the play's signature device: a happily married same-sex couple on a Broadway stage.
And McNally would certainly be the obvious choice to evoke this post-DOMA era of gay normalcy and integration. For decades, his plays have deftly blended a comic touch with an unspeakably sad core to reveal the texture of gay life to a mainstream audience. On some level, Mothers and Sons is indeed an heir to earlier McNally works like Love! Valor! Compassion and Lips Together, Teeth Apart. But something's been lost in the years, and the result is a drama that is both timid and overstuffed.
Mothers is a sequel, of sorts, to a 1988 McNally sketch called Andre's Mother, which took place at a memorial service for an AIDS victim and featured a confrontation between the late Andre's lover and (yes) his mother. The current play, set in 2014, is an unholy reunion: Cal (the lover) is hosting Katharine (the mother, played by Daly) at his well-appointed home on the Upper West Side. The twist is that Cal now shares that apartment with his much younger husband Will, and their six year-old son Bud. Katharine, who lives in Dallas, has dropped in on a blustery winter afternoon for (apparently) no reason in particular except that she's on her way to Europe and wanted a peek at what her son's former partner has made of himself. It's been two decades since Andre's death, but he haunts the lives of both Cal and Katherine, and it's clear that neither has fully moved on.
Cal and Will are the very model of an attractive, liberal, professional couple versed in the latest parenting techniques, while Bud is as precocious as he is polite. Katharine, who recently lost her husband, has a testy, plainspoken manner that pierces through any hint of nonsense. Also: she thinks gay people are "disgusting." It takes a while for her to agree to take off her coat and have a drink, but once she does, it's clear she won't be leaving anytime soon. It may be almost dinnertime, but first there are scores to settle, objects to unearth, and (especially) soul-baring monologues to deliver. Indeed, McNally has seemingly inserted two decades worth of gay history into a living-room drama that unfolds in ninety minutes of real time, but somehow it remains a star vehicle for Daly, with lots of emotions and zingers.
This would actually be fine, except it's oddly clunky. Character tempers suddenly flare without warning, while insults from Katherine that should sensibly lead to a quick exit float by without response. The Andre-related items that emerge--- a diary, a poster, some old pictures--- add up to little more than the plot devices they are. And by the end, the subject seems to veer off course, with Katharine on a tangent about her disappointing life and the indignity of always being referred to as "Andre's mother."
It works well enough as a light, conventional American drama about family that you can squeeze in before dinner reservations. Daly's deadpan performance is perfectly calibrated, with Katharine's alternating guilt and rage held in careful restraint until it's time to unload. Child actor Grayson Taylor shines as Bud. As Cal and Will, Frederick Weller and Bobby Steggert do an admirable job as a study in contrasts, though both occasionally lapse into the awkwardly broad voice inflections that are peculiar to uptown performances.
But for a high-profile Broadway show about a hot topic, Mothers and Sons takes very few risks. Casual viewers of television will not find anything fresh in a joke about a gay couple using artificial insemination, or in an extended explanation of the difference between the terms "lover," "partner," and "husband." Nor will the marriage of Cal and Will do anything to challenge the latest media image of gay men as beautiful, wealthy, and always well-behaved. That is, of course, McNally's prerogative as writer. But it speaks to a timidity that makes the play less than three-dimensional.
The script's most effective moments are the ones that deal directly with the late Andre, who never had the opportunity to marry, adopt, or live in a society that could even speak the name of his disease out loud. "First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote," says Will, about the plague of AIDS that ravaged a generation. "All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away." I wish McNally had more clearly articulated the raw edges of our own world, where, instead of spending their son's precious bath time defending themselves to disapproving people like Andre's mother, Cal and Will are perfectly free to shrug, shut the door, and act out dramas in which being gay and married is beside the point.