Reviews

Mother Play ***

By: Paulanne Simmons

May 5, 2024: Many of Paula Vogel’s plays explore themes related to her own life. In Vogel’s Baltimore Waltz, she turns her brother’s death from AIDS into an absurd fantasy. And the playwright has said How I Learned to Drive (a play about the sexual abuse of a child) is based on her own experience.

Jessica Lange and Celia Keenan-Bolger.

By: Paulanne Simmons

May 5, 2024: Many of Paula Vogel’s plays explore themes related to her own life. In Vogel’s Baltimore Waltz, she turns her brother’s death from AIDS into an absurd fantasy. And the playwright has said How I Learned to Drive (a play about the sexual abuse of a child) is based on her own experience.

In Mother Play, the son is named Carl, as in Baltimore Waltz, and we can assume Vogel is again returning to her own life as a dramatic source. But, as directed by Tina Landau, many of this drama’s themes are neither clear nor consistent.

Celia Keenan- Bolger and Jim Parsons.

The play is subtitled “a play in five evictions.” The first time Phyllis (Jessica Lange) and her children, Carl (Jim Parsons) and Martha  (Celia Keenan-Bolger), are evicted we know the eviction is the result of Phyllis’s complaints about infestations of rats and cockroaches. We even see the shadow of rats illuminated in garbage pails and cockroaches playfully dancing on a screen, thanks to Shawn Duan’s projections. 

But what accounts for the other evictions? There has to be more to them than scenic designer David Zinn’s furniture, reconfigured multiple times, or the many different ceiling lights that are raised and lowered throughout the play.

Jessica Lange is luminous as Phyllis, and it is unlikely a lessor actress could have succeeded as well in this difficult role. Is Phyllis a brave, modern woman or a submissive, traditional one? Is she cold or is she loving? Is she capable or needy? We all know people can behave differently in different situations. But the many sides to Phyllis’s character don’t seem to make much sense.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jessica Lange.

Over the course of the play, we learn quite a bit about Phyllis. She was passionately in love with a man who beat her and then deserted her and her children to live with his mistress. She never wanted children and raising them was a matter of just hanging on until the end. She is bitter but still hopeful she can build a new life. She is proud and happy when she buys a Chanel suit for ten dollars. She is also an alcoholic who manipulates her two children in typically unhealthy ways.

But Phyllis is not a total monster. She obviously favors her son and wants him to go to the best of schools so his enormous potential can be realized. When it comes to Martha, she is less ambitious. She knows her daughter (in fact any woman) must be able to take care of herself, and her experience has led her to believe the ability to type will make Martha employable. Phyllis also believes feminine women do better and wants her daughter to walk in a way that’s consistent with her idea of femininity. The scene demonstrating her instructions is both funny and painful.

But Phyllis’s knowledge of sexuality seems to end with walking. That she can’t see her daughter is most probably going to be a lesbian is understandable, but how can we account for her failure to realize her son is gay, even though Parsons makes this so obvious a dead person would get the idea?

Phyllis holds up a peace sign at Martha’s graduations, but this radical woman hates Betty Friedan and her ilk and turns out her gay son. When she finds out Carl has AIDS, she insists he come back and live with her, but when the neighbors begin to shun her, she wants him out again.

Jim Parsons and Jessica Lange.

How are Martha and Carl damaged by their mother’s excesses? We never really find out. We don’t know how they are employed or whom they have chosen for partners. Have any of Carl’s attempts at interesting his sister in literature paid off?

At one point, years after Phyllis first threw Carl out after finding out he was gay, Martha tries to effect a reconciliation between her brother and his mother by taking Phyllis  to a gay discotheque he frequents. Phyllis really gets into the dancing, and we are expecting a kumbaya moment until Phyllis sees Martha kissing her girlfriend. She couldn’t have waited a few minutes? Really?

Keenan-Bolger, who narrates the story, manages to give the wandering tale a solid base in reality, despite the scattered surreal moments (like those dancing roaches). Parsons keeps us laughing, turning Carl into an amiable clown.  But he isn’t too strong in the more serious moments. And at the very end, Lange brings home all the regret, uncertainty, pain and helplessness of old age.

However, in many ways Mother Play seems like a work-in-progress only partially saved by Lange’s brilliant performance.

Mother Play ***
Second Stage at the Hayes Theater
240 W. 44th St., NYC. 
April 25—June 16, 2024
Running time: 100 mins. with no intermission. 2st.com
Photography: Joan Marcus