Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler gets a taste of family drama with Terrence McNally’s new play, Mothers and Sons.
If there is one living playwright who has understood the gay vernacular, it is Terrence McNally. The four-time Tony Award winner brings his latest effort, Mothers and Sons, to Broadway starring Tony and Emmy Award winner Tyne Daly as a hardened mother still grieving the loss of her son. But McNally’s woven tale of love lost and love found lacks the emotional truth of his earlier works such as Love! Valor! Compassion! and The Lisbon Traviata.
Set against the backdrop of a very expensive Upper West Side apartment, the plot follows Katherine Gerard (Tyne Daly), who pays an unexpected visit to her late son’s former partner Cal (Frederick Weller), who is now married to Will (Bobby Steggert). The couple now have their own child, Bud (Grayson Taylor). Challenged to face how society has changed around her, generations collide as Katherine revisits the past and discovers a new connection she never expected.
McNally has said that he wanted to write a play that addressed the changing issues now affecting gay men and women—particularly marriage and parenthood. And while that subject matter is addressed, it is delivered with a heavy hand. Katherine has appeared in the doorway of Cal and Will’s happy home with the burden of loss, attempting to reconcile feelings regarding her son’s death from AIDS. The two banter back and forth, drudging up memories of their loved one.
The first of several derailments happens as the two are chatting about Katherine’s recently deceased husband, when Cal emphatically states that he didn’t give her son AIDS. These spurts of anger appear throughout the play, cracking the thin plaster of politeness. Will enters with six-year-old Bud and some obligatory child acting takes place before he’s whisked off for a bath and the adults can continue to lament and argue with one another.
Cal drags out a box of photos and it’s clear that we’re all headed down memory lane, but one that doesn’t necessarily propel the action forward. The two continue to alternately comfort and needle each other. On the subject of marriage and AIDS, Cal rages, “Of course we’d never taken marriage vows. We weren’t allowed to. It wasn’t even a possibility. Relationships like mine and Andre’s weren’t supposed to last. We didn’t deserve the dignity of marriage. Maybe that’s why AIDS happened.” Then it’s back to the photo albums as if he had just offered her a hot tea.
Former lover and grieving mother flip through Andre’s journal as they continue to break down the walls of the past. Long-winded monologues ensue. “If that were my son wasting, writhing, incoherent, incontinent in that bed in St. Vincent’s, I would want him to know how much I loved him, how much I would always love him. I did what I could for Andre. I hope to this day it was enough,” says Cal, as he recalls his former lover’s painful death.
As Katherine, Tyne Daly delivers an icy performance that eventually melts throughout the 90-minute play. It’s as if the character has left the window barely cracked for her to breath, but Daly manages to finds moments of humanity, humor and gravitas. Frederick Weller as Cal is less successful. At times whiny and at other times rageful, Weller never seems to fit into the pocket of the play, but rather appears as the actor layering on fabrications of bourgeois gay. Bobby Steggert (who managed to land his second Broadway role of the season, appearing last fall in the now closed Big Fish) is tasked with a character shaded with entitlement and vulnerability. He fares best with McNally’s dialogue, and captures the complexities of a new generation of gay men facing marriage and parenthood.
John Lee Beatty’s set is perhaps symbolic of the play’s idiosyncrasies. McNally description in the script says that Cal and Will’s apartment “doesn’t look “decorated” but someone at Architectural Digest would love to get their hands on it. The possibilities are boundless; they just haven’t been realized yet.”
Such is the demise of Mothers and Sons. Though the play chugs along due to McNally’s decades worth of experience, its voice misses the mark, leaving one to wonder what yet unknown writers may be on the verge of portraying the LGBT experience for the 21st century theater.
Mothers and Sons
John Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street