A High-Powered Cast Admirably Handles Paula Vogel’s Sometimes Difficult ‘Mother Play’ 

Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons, and a Broadway favorite, Celia Keenan-Bolger star in a semi-autobiographical work that suggests that Vogel harbors considerable anger toward the original ‘Mother,’ and also regards her with some pity.

Joan Marcus
Jessica Lange and Celia Keenan-Bolger in 'Mother Play.' Joan Marcus

“A Play in Five Evictions” is the subtitle of Paula Vogel’s “Mother Play,” and so before we get into the Pulitzer Prize winner’s latest text, or the starry cast she and director Tina Landau have assembled to introduce it — consisting of Jessica Lange, Jim Parsons, and a Broadway favorite, Celia Keenan-Bolger — let’s talk about set changes.

Scenic designer David Zinn is tasked with following Phyllis, the single mom played here by Ms. Lange, and her children, Martha and Carl — Ms. Keenan-Bolger and Mr. Parsons, respectively — around the Washington, D.C., area over the course of more than four decades, as various circumstances bounce them from one humble apartment to another. With seamless transitions, Mr. Zinn and the performers take the trio from a cockroach-infested basement pad (the pests are made comically monstrous in Shawn Duan’s projection design) to a relatively elegant condominium for independent seniors.

Through it all, Phyllis remains bitter toward the husband who abandoned her for another woman, and often withholds affection or approval from her growing children. Martha and Carl, meanwhile, learn to essentially fend for themselves — Phyllis is the kind of mother who would rather have a drink, or four, than help unpack boxes or cook dinner — and come to rely increasingly on each other.

This dynamic grows even more intense once Martha and Carl reach adulthood, and their “lifestyles,” as Phyllis calls them, further alienate their mother, even as occasional developments earn her sympathy — for instance, when Carl, during the 1980s, is affected by a crisis that devastated the gay community during that time.

Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger in ‘Mother Play.’ Joan Marcus

Ms. Vogel has referred to “Mother Play” as a semi-autobiographical work; the playwright is openly gay, and one of her brothers, named Carl, died of AIDS in 1988 (and inspired her previous play, “The Baltimore Waltz”). Ms. Vogel’s mother was also named Phyllis, and she worked as a secretary for the Postal Service, as Ms. Lange’s character does; the play is dedicated to Ms. Vogel’s other older brother, Mark.

While it’s never a good idea to try to psychoanalyze artists through their work, the play suggests that Ms. Vogel still harbors considerable anger toward the original Phyllis, and also regards her with some pity. We meet the character when she’s 37 years old; Ms. Lange, who is roughly twice that age, credibly conveys a worn but still potent glamor, and a mix of callousness and entitlement that makes one ache for her children.

As she ages, the fictional Phyllis becomes more pathetic. At one point, after she has shown astonishing cruelty toward Carl, we watch her practically tremble as she speaks on the phone with her own elderly mother, possibly her only friend left. Another scene finds Phyllis alone again, but this time she says nothing; instead, during one of the longest stretches of silence I’ve experienced in a Broadway theater, she seems to summon ghosts of men and good times from her past — serving herself dinner, swigging gin, swaying to music.

Ms. Lange is by turns amusing and shattering in these moments — as she is in a few others where Ms. Vogel reveals a clearer sense of compassion. The most poignant, perhaps not surprisingly, comes at the end of the play, by which point Phyllis has been made fragile by forces more powerful than her own, and the playwright acknowledges the extent to which this old woman’s life has also been shaped by rejection and repression.

Ms. Keenan-Bolger, who in her last Broadway performance was remarkably convincing as a child — Scout Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird” — effortlessly charts Martha’s evolution from a precocious but troubled 12-year-old into a graceful, confident woman who’s nonetheless still frustrated and bruised. “We are scared to touch each other,” she tells Phyllis. “You can’t blame me if I need to be touched.”

Mr. Parsons is, as he has been in numerous stage productions in recent years, funny and touching, both in scenes that call on Carl to protect and nurture his sister and, later on, when he is in need of nurturing. A beautifully curated assortment of music, ranging from tunes by Richard Rodgers and Henry Mancini to ’70s classics like “Baker Street” and “I Will Survive,” marks the passing of time and creates a lingering air of nostalgia.

“There is a season for packing. And a season for unpacking,” Martha tells us, early on. In the end, “Mother Play” encourages us to better understand and appreciate both kinds, and the people we spend them with.

The New York Sun

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