Tragicomic memories of maternal dysfunction in ‘Mother Play’ at Broadway’s Hayes Theater

Among the many Broadway shows that opened in April during this busy awards season are three slightly fictionalized autobiographical works by women playwrights dealing with the theme of single motherhood and children abandoned by their fathers, all of which serve as a kind of self-reflective release and healing for their creators and have garnered critical acclaim and multiple awards nominations. In Mary Jane, playing an extended run with MTC at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through June 16, Amy Herzog tells an uplifting story of a loving, caring, and optimistic young mother building a supportive community of compassionate women around her and finding the light to deal with the incurable illness of her frequently hospitalized young son. Hell’s Kitchen, with music and lyrics by Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Alicia Keys, now in an open-ended engagement at the Shubert Theatre, is a high-energy coming-of-age musical recounted by a seventeen-year-old girl growing up in the eponymous NYC neighborhood, coming to terms with the tough love of a mother who doesn’t want her to make the same mistakes she did, and finding her passion in music. And Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel’s Mother Play, presented by Second Stage at The Hayes Theater and running through June 16, takes the form of a tragicomic memory play that explores family dynamics and the lingering damage and pain caused by the deeply troubled and unaccepting mother of a gay son and daughter.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jessica Lange. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As indicated by its subtitle, Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions is set in a series of apartments in the DC Beltway area, in which Phyllis, a heavy-drinking, smoking, and financially strapped divorced mother of two, made her home from 1964 to the 21st century, with the rooms, mid-century furniture, pendant lights, and boxes rearranged in different configurations for each (scenic design by David Zinn). Now an adult, daughter Martha is looking through her brother Carl’s meaningful belongings, all of which fit into one medium-size box. She finds the letter he wrote to her before dying of AIDS in 1988, and begins unpacking the recollections it triggers of their close sibling bond and the many issues they faced at the hands of their dysfunctional mother.

Under the keen direction of Tina Landau, the engaging three-hander deftly runs the gamut from bitingly funny and affectingly tender to fiery, combative, and devastating, from psychologically and emotionally penetrating to flamboyantly theatrical and surreal (with shifts in Jen Schriever’s lighting to distinguish the different tones and moods). The all-star cast of Celia Keenan-Bolger as Martha (from ages eleven to her 50s), Jessica Lange as Phyllis (from her 30s to old age), and Jim Parsons as Carl (from thirteen to his premature death at 37) delivers it all in masterful performances that embrace the humor, drama, love, anger, and poignancy through the decades of Martha’s remembrances and revelations of a family that can’t even agree on which radio station to listen to (with their favorite vintage music heard in Jill BC Du Boff’s evocative sound design), as she counts off the years (with all three in period-style costumes by Toni-Leslie James and hair and wigs by Matthew Armentrout), the number of moves they made, and the number of drinks her mother consumed, in direct-address asides to the audience.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jim Parsons. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s immediately clear that the kids do more for the demanding matriarch (they do all the unpacking, setting up of the apartments, and repacking, Martha makes her martinis, Carl lights her cigarettes and takes out the bug- and rodent-infested garbage) than she does for them (tossing a bag of MacDonald’s burgers and fries at them before announcing there’s no more money for them to spend on anything – though she proudly buys herself a thrift-shop Chanel suit, about which Carl, an extremely intelligent budding writer, invents a back-story fantasy). But they also show adolescent hints of their budding sexual identities, over which Phyllis mocks and insults them, wonders if it’s “too much to ask for one normal child?,” rages, and ultimately cuts ties, no matter how much they’ve done for her or tried to enlighten her, including inviting her to PFLAG meetings and a gay disco, where she makes some progress in changing her homophobic attitude, has fun and dances to “I Will Survive” (in an ebullient scene, with choreography by Christopher Gattelli, that showcases Lange’s versatility and comedic skill) – until she doesn’t.

We hear her talking incessantly (and drunkenly) about herself and her past, calling the building’s unresponsive superintendent repeatedly to complain about the infestation of roaches in their basement apartment (with creepy projections by Shawn Duan of them crawling over everything, an absurdly hilarious backdrop video of them dancing in silhouette in a chorus line, and Phyllis putting the dead roaches they killed into an envelope to mail to the landlord with the rent check), dictating her plans for her children’s lives (Carl will go to college; Martha will learn to type so she can become a secretary since she’s not smart enough for college and she’s just a woman), and manifesting her intolerance of who they are.

Jessica Lange. Photo by Joan Marcus.

But there is also an extended solo scene portraying the desolation and loneliness of Phyllis, by herself after alienating her son and daughter, silently staring into space, turning the TV on and off, and then the radio, after making a few dance moves to the music, pulling out a deck of cards for a game of solitaire then putting them away without playing, setting up a tray table and flowers for her dinner then drowning it in hot sauce and not eating. It’s a heartbreaking look at all the things no one wants to do alone, which generates sympathy for the unlikable character and her detestable approach to motherhood. It’s a role, she later heartlessly reveals to Martha, she never wanted but couldn’t afford to abort, after ironically telling her earlier what a great mother her own was – once again eliciting our headshaking and sardonic laughs.

Keenan-Bolger and Parsons turn in equally compelling portrayals of their characters’ distinctive personalities (their scene of practicing how to walk is especially amusing), their coming-out journeys, their exasperation with their mother (seen in their expressive sidelong glances towards each other), the suffering she caused them, their indelible loving relationship and unfailing encouragement and support of one another, and their capacity for understanding and forgiveness, as embodied in their coming together for the funeral of their maternal grandmother, where Phyllis invites them to sit with her and reaches out to hold their hands – a significant gesture by a woman who rarely touched them – and in Martha’s weekly visits at the nursing home where her elderly mother then lived, suffering from dementia and unable to recognize her daughter, who gives her a gentle sponge bath and is told something she was never told before but needed to hear.

Jim Parsons, Jessica Lange, and Celia Keenan-Bolger. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Mother Play is a profoundly moving, brilliantly acted, and cleverly staged work, in a season with outstanding shows that feature lead women characters and their personal stories of mothering. It’s my favorite Vogel play to date, for its perfect balance of cutting humor and piercing emotion, so don’t miss this stellar cast and highly recommended Broadway premiere.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.

Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions plays through June 16, 2024, at the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $109-239, including fees), call (212) 541-4516, or go online.


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