Mothers and Sons

  • Our critic's rating:
    March 1, 2014

    Beware of women wearing fur. It is s sure sign that what is underneath will be a disappointment. Kind of like this play. A promising exterior. You would think that the combination of a noted author, a well-known actor in the lead role, and the fabulous Bobby Steggert would guarantee a great production. You would think that. And you, sadly, would be wrong. To be sure, this is a timely play. The fact that gay men and women are getting married, and that some folks still have serious mixed feelings about this is a subject worth exploring. So hats off to McNally for doing that. But the play itself is not much to look at or sit through.

    The time is the present. Katharine (Tyne Daly) is paying a call on Cal Porter (Frederick Weller). New York is a pit stop on the way to spending Christmas in Italy. Katharine has come to Cal’s apartment to return something of her son’s to Cal. Twenty-six years ago, Cal was the lover of Andre Gerard, Katharine’s son. Six years into their relationship, Andre contracted AIDS and died in 1994. He was 29, missing the antiretrovirals by inches. Over the next few minutes that seem like hours we learn that Katharine was estranged from Andre. She adored him, her only child, but could not accept his sexual orientation. As far as Katharine was – and is – concerned, Andre left Dallas as a straight man and turned gay after he arrived in New York. That he died is Cal’s fault as well as the fault of all the other gay men with whom Andre came in contact. That it was actually Andre who put Cal at risk is not part of Katharine’s frame of reference. Nor are the many months of love and care that Cal gave Andre, or the eight years he spent grieving for him.

    Katharine is not staying, she tells Cal when he asks to take her coat. He offers her something to drink, and she is not thirsty. When it does become evident, about 30 minutes in, that she is not leaving, even though nothing is happening, Katharine gives up her mink and settles in to look through a box of photos of her son. Cal leaves the apartment – in one of the many contrived moments we must watch – to go downstairs because his husband Will has forgotten his keys and the doorman is on a break….Seriously?

    When Cal’s husband Will (Bobby Steggert) and their son Bud (Grayson Taylor) enter the apartment, something sort of happens for a minute or two. Will has a bad reaction to Katharine’s presence. He has heard nothing good about her for the past 11 or so years, number one; number two, her past cruelty to Cal is of mythic proportion; and number three she represents Cal’s first love Andre. Had Andre lived, Will and Cal would not be together. Everyone becomes very iconic at this point: Katharine is the voice of the unaccepting past. Cal is the one who lived through the AIDS epidemic (although he is a bit on the young side, frankly). Will is the next generation – 15 years Cal’s junior – who is active in the movement to remember the epidemic while also cashing in on the new status of being gay and married and a father. The elephant in the room is, of course, Andre, whom we never see, but about whom much is said.

    Ho-hum. Even with all the assigned roles being duly noted by these actors, nothing happens that is remotely engaging.

    As the two fathers take turns bathing their son, Katharine is left to take them on one at a time. Kind of like someone would handle a tag team. And she tries, by God. Katharine hurls every vile, clichéd insult she can at Cal and Will. She disguises it as self-pity. She is a new widow and now is truly alone. Of course part of the reason for that is because she is a “Class A” Bitch – which she herself admits, but does not believe she can or will change. No one ever does, she says. Katharine is here to depend on the kindness of strangers. She and Cal are the only two people alive who still care about Andre. Katharine has nowhere else to go. Mind you nothing like this is ever said. You have to figure it out on your own.

    This situation, this series of events, does not a story make. There is no plot, unless you consider the rantings of a mean, lonely woman to be enough to make a plot. An unexpected and unwanted guest, playing an old, old song, who arrives and doesn’t have the good sense to leave is not a plot. Here is what is missing: Cal never asks Katharine to leave. Will makes a slight attempt, then the idea is simply shelved. Katherine’s is a jarring intrusion on Cal and Will’s relationship, yet the opportunity for an enormous confrontation between them is ignored. For some reason Katherine is allowed to crap all over the apartment like a badly behaved pet. Cal’s reasons for trying to go gentle are dishwater thin.

    But even pointless plays come to an end, thank goodness. In this case the play doesn’t end so much as it stalls out. It just stops moving. Little Bud offers Katharine cookies and milk and a story as they share a settee on one side of the stage. Cal and Will watch them from a couch on the other side of the stage, sharing a pose and not unlike two greyhounds in a 19th century painting. The lights dim s-l-o-w-l-y. Curtain descends. Action stops.

    But there is no end.

    There was no beginning. There was no middle. So no end.

    As for the actors, my friend John Randolph used to say to me, “You must never blame the actors.” And for the most part I don’t. Ms. Daly could afford to lighten up on indicating where the jokes are. And young Mr. Taylor needs a voice coach who will make him audible. Weller and Steggert just have to hang in and hope for the best.

    McNally’s writing in Mothers and Sons is sophomoric. While his intention is more than honorable, his execution is lacking. He pulls out every old gay joke and/or point of reference he can find, but gives us nothing new at all. Nothing. Too bad. Add to the mix Sheryl Kaller’s lackluster direction and you have a long, mighty long show. What a missed opportunity.

    This is drama-lite. Like lite beer, it reminds you of the real thing. What it lacks in flavor it makes up for in bulk.

    PS – this takes place of course in a John Lee Beatty gorgeous upper west side Central Park West Apartment. These folks have no problems except the ones they make. When will we ever get a play about the folks who live paycheck-to-paycheck, and are gay and parents? I’m just sayin’…..

    "Mothers and Sons, an impeccably acted production directed by Sheryl Kaller, is wrapped in a sense of urgency that paradoxically saps it as a drama."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Terrence McNally’s sincere but frustrating drama about family and fear."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "A clunker of a Broadway show, 'Mothers and Sons' asks us to endure the vacuous chit-chat of deeply unpleasant people. The worst part is, there isn’t even a good reason for their chit-chatting in the first place."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "The play has a rather clumsy construction, with pretexts continuously popping up for characters to leave the room – they answer the front door, go to the bathroom, give Bud his bath – so that the remaining pair can have their private conversations."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "Terrence McNally's latest contemplation of the lives of gay men in a society of evolving attitudes touches on plenty of interesting points, but lacks the structural backbone to make them compelling."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "The ideas are so diffuse and the dramatic structure so disjointed, there’s no cohesion to the material and no point to the plot."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - The Record - Hollywood Reporter - Variety