Mothers and Sons: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Frederick Weller and Tyne Daly in "Mothers and Sons"
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.

Tyne Daly, Frederick Weller and Bobby Steggert star in Terrence McNally's new play, which returns to characters first encountered in his 1988 one-act, "Andre's Mother."

NEW YORK – Tyne Daly is far too grounded and honest an actor to give an inauthentic performance, but she deserves a more satisfying play than Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons. There's no shortage of thematic breadth here concerning the changing dynamics for gay men and their families, in a work that considers the generational shift from AIDS victims to survivors, from incomprehension to increased acceptance, and from rights-deprived relationships to legitimate marriage and parenthood. But while it's absorbing and at times mildly affecting, this shapeless drama never probes deep enough, its air of artificiality making it appear to have been rushed to Broadway with insufficient development.

Daly plays Katharine Gerard, a recently widowed woman from blue-collar Port Chester, NY, who married up, if not happily, and moved to Dallas, a city she has never warmed to. She has a vast array of dislikes, and by her own admission is not an easy person to like, though she can turn on the charm when it's required. Now finally alone in her cold solitude to ruminate on wounds that have festered for twenty years, she has come to New York on her way to Europe, looking to assign blame for the loss of her son Andre, a promising actor who died two decades earlier at 29 of AIDS complications.

Audiences familiar with McNally's work will recognize Katharine as the title character from his 1988 one-act, Andre's Mother, expanded and filmed two years later for PBS' American Playhouse series, with Sada Thompson in the role.

Andre's longterm boyfriend at the time of his death, Cal (Frederick Weller), is now a money manager in his late forties, living in unostentatious Upper West Side comfort (albeit with a spectacular Central Park view), and married to an aspiring novelist 15 years his junior, Will (Bobby Steggert). The picture of unburdened contentment in Katharine's resentful eyes, they are also raising a precocious six-year-old son, Bud (Grayson Taylor).

Katharine's unannounced visit is ostensibly to return Andre's diary, which Cal sent her after his death but which neither of them has had the fortitude to read. Something of a MacGuffin in the play, this volume gets handed back and forth as Katharine outstays her uncomfortable welcome. Its chief revelation, when excerpts are finally sampled, is that Andre's illness was brought on by his own actions. But like almost everything else here, that produces only soft conflict and even fuzzier resolution.

Too much of McNally's dialogue reeks of dutiful exposition (characters telling one another things they know, solely for the audience's benefit) or shoehorned agenda points. While the playwright is not lacking in empathy, he clearly is feeling confrontational toward a generation of mothers who shut out their gay sons during their time of greatest need, and then wondered why they were unloved. But the dramatic engine is underpowered, and as a snapshot of gay experience, its sociopolitical perspective is superficial.

In her smart, matronly outfit and lustrous fur coat, clutching a sturdy crocodile bag (Jess Goldstein did the appropriate costuming), Katharine is a formidable woman, relinquishing her standoffish formality by infinitesimal degrees only to seize it again at the slightest hint of friction. But Daly's natural intelligence goes against the character's obtuse belief that her son was somehow "turned" gay by his move to New York. In some ways, Katharine's judgmental homophobia may have mellowed since the years depicted in Andre's Mother, but it's by no means been erased. The subtlety with which Daly reveals the well of hurt and frustration beneath that unyielding shell is quietly moving, helping to bridge the remoteness of an abrasive character. However, while her considerable gifts were put to brilliant use as Maria Callas in the 2011 Broadway revival of McNally's Master Class, this new play's failure to define a strong point of view does nobody any favors.

Weller is also a highly watchable actor, cautiously juggling courtesy, defensiveness and animosity that attest to a difficult history between two characters who barely knew one another and have had no contact since Andre's memorial service. But a smug saintliness comes through in the way Cal and Will are written, which is inescapable particularly in Steggert's irritating performance. And too often, their words when they do challenge Katharine feel inorganic to the stiff situation.

Director Sheryl Kaller, best known for her sensitive work with another gay-themed play, Next Fall, does what she can to instill momentum into the static drama, forcibly marshaling the actors all over John Lee Beatty's realistic set. She gets her most valuable assist from the amusing ways in which Daly's blunt delivery chafes against the increasing prickliness of Weller's Cal. But while Katharine's stubborn refusal to take a hint and leave is consistent with the character's aloofness, too many aspects of her talky extended visit increasingly ring false, right down to the concluding note of hope.

Venue: John Golden Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast: Tyne Daly, Frederick Weller, Bobby Steggert, Grayson Taylor

Director: Sheryl Kaller

Playwright: Terrence McNally

Set designer: John Lee Beatty

Costume designer: Jess Goldstein

Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter

Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg

Presented by Tom Kirdahy, Roy Furman, Paula Wagner & Debbie Bisno, Barbara Freitag & Lorraine Alterman Boyle, Hunter Arnold, Paul Boskind, Ken Davenport, Lams Productions, Mark Lee & Ed Filipowski, Roberta Pereira/Brunish-Trinchero, Sanford Robertson, TomSmedes & Peter Stern, Jack Thomas/Susan Dietz