'Mother Play' review — Jessica Lange plays a powerhouse matriarch

Read our review of Mother Play on Broadway, a new play by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel starring Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons, and Celia Keenan-Bolger.

Allison Considine
Allison Considine

Paula Vogel’s latest world premiere, Mother Play, bears all the hallmarks of a family drama, with a fiery, alcoholic parent at the center of the dysfunction and conflict. The play also features dancing cockroaches, funny one-liners, and tender moments. It’s the perfect vehicle for Jessica Lange’s return to Broadway after an eight-year hiatus.

Lange stars as Phyllis, a hot-headed matriarch with impossible expectations for her two children, Carl (Jim Parsons) and Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger). Martha serves as the memory play’s narrator, chronicling the family’s struggles over a four-decade stretch. The passage of time is marked by cocktails (countless) and evictions (five).

The characters progress from adolescence to adulthood and from midlife to old age. Keenan-Bolger holds her own as an 11-year-old and a 50something woman. As a 37-year-old, Lange struts across the stage in a Diane von Furstenburg wrap dress and heels. She dances (choreography by Christopher Gattelli) at a disco with such vitality that the audience clapped along to the beat.

The play works because of the cast’s incredible ability to play both young and old characters, and solemn and funny ones. In particular, Parsons’s humor shines as Carl, a quick-witted genius who holds the family together.

One of the play’s throughlines is touch — or rather, the lack of it. Director Tina Landau beautifully incorporates moments of closeness and distance through careful staging.

Mother Play is all about the mother’s touch and what it means to mother and be mothered, in all senses of the role. Martha says in the play, “There is a season for packing. And a season for unpacking.” Mother Play leaves the audience with lots to unpack.

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Mother Play summary

The play begins in 1962 at an apartment outside Washington, D.C., where Phyllis and her teenage children Carl and Martha, are moving into a new apartment. For them, moving is old hat, and unboxing is a practiced skill.

The play, spanning four decades, follows the family through five apartments and through many hardships, including cockroach infestations and painful conflicts. At the center of it all is Phyllis, an alcoholic who wants her children to follow a certain path, but they each forge their own way.

What to expect at Mother Play

Jessica Lange, best known for her Emmy Award-winning performance in the anthology series American Horror Story, is in her prime in Mother Play. In one scene, wearing a fabulous silk robe, she steeps in her character’s loneliness. She prepares a TV dinner, dials the radio, mixes a drink, and prophesies with a crystal ball, all in silence. It’s a masterful character study.

The play’s set, designed by David Zinn, is a character in and of itself. As the family moves from a basement apartment to a fifth-floor condo, the same mid-century modern furniture moves with them, transforming each space into a home. (Of note is the incredible knock-off Eames chair, which serves as Phyllis’s throne.) There’s also a menagerie of pendant lights of various styles that hang above the set, and new ones appear to denote each new apartment.

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What audiences are saying about Mother Play

Upon publication, Mother Play had an overall rating of 87% on Show-Score, with audiences applauding the performances and direction.

  • “Don't miss the opportunity to see the world premiere of one of the best American playwrights ever + a brilliant cast and masterful director.” - Show-Score user alexmgross
  • “See it if you want to see Paula Vogel at her best with a perfect cast and insightful direction. Humor and struggles with reality for Mom and children.” - Show-Score user Buzzy
  • “Riveting show. Jessica is at her best and Jim and Celia keep up with her in this seamless journey. Great story!!” Show-Score user The4thWall

Read more audience reviews of Mother Play on Show-Score.

Who should see Mother Play

  • Fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel should attend. Vogel’s other Broadway credits include How I Learned to Drive and Indecent.
  • Audience members who enjoy seeing big stars on stage will experience the brilliant work of the cast up close at the Hayes Theater, Broadway’s smallest theatre.
  • Those who enjoyed the hit show The Big Bang Theory, starring Parsons, will enjoy seeing the actor play this heartbreaking role.

Learn more about Mother Play on Broadway

Mother Play showcases powerhouse performances by Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons, and Celia Keenan-Bolger. The world-premiere play, and the trio at its center, will make you laugh and pull at your heartstrings.

Learn more and get Mother Play tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Mother Play is at the Hayes Theater through June 16.

Additional Mother Play content

Photo credit: Mother Play on Broadway. (Photos by Joan Marcus)

Originally published on

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