Sunday, June 22, 2014

Mothers and Sons: The Latest Wisdom on Gay Issues from Terrence McNally

Frederick Weller and Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Terrence McNally has written dozens of plays and musicals, four of which have won him Tony Awards, yet as a piece of dramaturgy, his latest, Mothers and Sons, is inept. For the first forty minutes or so the characters stand around and deliver exposition; then they stand around making angry speeches; then they go back to presenting exposition. The standing-around part can be blamed on the director, Sheryl Kaller – this is the most static Broadway play I’ve seen in years – but you’d have to be pretty inventive to create some forward movement in a play that’s almost nothing but speeches.

McNally must believe that he has something so important to say that all this tremulous oratory is justified, but the play is simultaneously trite and implausible. Twenty years after the death of a young New York actor from AIDS, his mother, Katharine (Tyne Daly), now a widow, comes from Texas to visit her son’s surviving lover, Cal (Frederick Weller), who is happily married, with a little boy (Grayson Taylor). The ostensible purpose of Katharine’s trip is to return her son’s diary, which Cal sent her some years back, but it turns out she’s still looking for an outlet for her fury at her loss. She’s angry at Cal for moving on and finding happiness with another (younger) man, but she also remains angry at the dead AndrĂ© for his gay lifestyle and, in fact, for abandoning her in Texas with her unlovable husband – her word – to pursue a career in New York, when she’d counted on him to make her own life less lonely. She still believes that AndrĂ© was straight when he moved to New York and that someone made him gay. While we know that there are indeed still people in the twenty-first century who think this way, it’s unlikely that Katharine, who grew up about half an hour outside New York City and has had more than two decades to digest the fact of her son’s homosexuality, is one of them. Despite Tyne Daly’s vibrancy and her uncanny talent for turning even the least pliable character into a living, breathing human being – she’s the only reason for sitting through this dreadful play – Katharine’s prejudices and her smoldering rage register as dramatic conveniences that (a) give Cal and his husband Will (Bobby Steggert) an opportunity to lecture the audience about AIDS and gay marriage and (b) set up the inevitable hopeful ending, when Katharine finally reaches out to Cal and perhaps finds some semblance of comfort and family. You have to hand it to Daly: considering how little affection McNally has for her character, it’s a personal triumph that she manages to keep the audience from throwing their playbills at her.

Bobby Steggert & Frederick Weller (Photo by Jaon Marcus)
Weller, a grounded, intelligent and likable actor with a quirky, jazzy way with a line, does the best he can here. (I used to love watching him banter with Mary McCormick on the TV series In Plain Sight.) But Cal is inescapably the voice of the playwright, telling us what it’s like to be gay and what it was like to live through the AIDS epidemic, and once he gets to the scene where he theorizes to Katharine that if there’d been gay marriage in the eighties then maybe there wouldn’t have been AIDS, you’ve just about had enough of him. On the other hand, Steggert reads his lines so woodenly and has so little physical freedom on stage that even though Will isn’t a mouthpiece, Steggert makes him sound like one. This is the third play I’ve seen Steggert in over the past two seasons – the others, Giant and Big Fish, were both musicals – and he’s been deadly dull in all three. Here he plays a man whose point of view we’re presumably meant to feel some sympathy for: he’s so appalled by Katharine’s treatment of her son, whom she rejected because of his sexual orientation, and of her high-handedness toward his own husband, that he doesn’t understand why Cal has even invited her up to their handsome Central Park apartment. But because of a combination of McNally’s didacticism and Steggert’s colorlessness, Will comes across as judgmental and irritatingly PC. McNally’s early plays showed some humor and imagination, but every new one seems more insufferably self-important and less dramatic than the last. Mothers and Sons isn’t a play at all; it’s a keynote address.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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