By: David Sheward
The most affecting moments in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons are silent. These take place when Tyne Daly as Katharine, a Dallas widow, is left alone in the gorgeous Upper West Side apartment of Cal, the lover of her late son Andre who died of AIDS 20 years earlier. Informing every movement and glance with volumes of subtext, Daly reveals Katharine’s gut-wrenching discomfort and yearning for some connection with her lost offspring. As she goes through old photographs, you can see the memories each one evokes on her subtly shifting features. But then she must speak one of McNally’s forced one-liners and the spell is broken.
That’s the trouble with this underdeveloped 90-minute piece: Daly’s acting is superb, but the dialogue and basic premise are arch and contrived. McNally deserves credit for addressing a relevant new issue: the impact of the rapidly changing attitudes toward gays. Katharine and Cal were characters in McNally’s brief sketch Andre’s Mother, part of a 1988 Off-Broadway revue called Urban Blight. The author later expanded it to a television play for which he won an Emmy. In the TV version, the two confront each other over the course of the men’s relationship. Katharine is unable to let go of her anger, blaming Cal for turning her son gay and later causing him to contract the disease associated with the "lifestyle." In the short play, Katharine is silent and Cal rails at her for rejecting her dead son because of his sexuality. In this sequel, Cal is financially prosperous and happily married-make that perfectly married-to the much younger Will, a writer with a New Yorker short story to his credit. They have an aggressively cute 6-year-old son named Bud. Katharine makes an unexpected visit on the pretext of returning Andre’s diary to Cal, but her motives are never fully explained.
McNally gives us a lot of pointed social observation and a fair amount of sharp dialogue, but the four characters come across as representatives of political positions rather than fleshed-out human beings. In addition, their psychological backgrounds are too easily brought to the surface. Each adult is able to eloquently articulate his or her diagnosis, as if attending a therapy conference. Even little Bud is annoyingly adept at deciphering everyone’s agenda. It’s ironic that Katharine rejects the possibility of therapy since she seems intelligent enough to figure out the reasons for her rage.
By having his combatants blatantly state their positions, McNally condescends to his audience. He obviously broadcasts the conflicts rather than letting us figure them out for ourselves. Playwrights such as Donald Margulies (Dinner With Friends) and Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation) more accurately depict most human interactions by creating characters who attack their problems indirectly.
Director Sheryl Kaller moves the four actors around John Lee Beatty’s elegant setting with professional aplomb, but they still feel like participants in a debate. Fortunately, Daly convincingly conveys Katharine’s lifetime of hurt and yearning through telling, incomplete gestures such as the way she picks up a glass of scotch, decides not to drink it, and puts it down again. Frederick Weller’s Cal doesn’t reach this level of breathtaking verisimilitude, but he chronicles the man’s shattering sense of guilt over surviving the AIDS crisis and finding happiness. Bobby Steggert has a difficult time getting past Will’s politically correct smugness, but offers humor and bite. As Bud, Grayson Taylor makes for a startlingly self-possessed 6-year-old, but he seems too much like a poster child for gay families. And that’s what Mothers and Sons boils down to: a position paper rather than a realistic glimpse at how we live now.
Opened March 24 for an open run. John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $59-137. (212) 239-6200.