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stage dive

Theater Review: A Sharp Echo of a Bleaker Time, in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons

Mothers and SonsJohn Golden TheatreCast List:Tyne DalyFrederick WellerBobby SteggertProduction Credits:Sheryl KallerOther Credits:Written by: Terrence McNally Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor, and Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons.

Tyne Daly isn’t in Master Class this year, but she’s giving one. And, paradoxically, rule No. 1 is: Give nothing away. As Katharine Gerard in Mothers and Sons, she doesn’t clue you in to her intentions, or tease her next moves, or make big faces to indicate her anger at the world: an anger so unrelenting she could “let that ottoman put me in a rage.” She resists crying and tells no jokes but jerks the most tears from the audience and gets the evening’s biggest laughs just by standing or sitting and doing the plainest things. She reaches for a drink to balance her nerves, then doesn’t drink it. She fishes reading glasses from her purse before looking through photos of her dead son. She stands within her secondhand fur coat as if it were armor.  

You could say that the lady has good cause, but part of what makes Daly’s performance so memorable is that she does not justify her character. Katharine’s motives for showing up at the Upper West Side apartment of her son’s surviving partner, a money manager named Cal, remain obscure, as motives often do in life. She says she’s come to return her son Andre’s journal, but she could have done that at any point in the twenty years since he died of AIDS; in any case, it need take no more than five minutes. Instead she stays long enough to meet Cal’s young husband and their 6-year-old boy, and do everything possible to disingratiate herself. She is willfully politically incorrect. She declines to get their jokes. She cuts off an especially unwelcome explanation of the young husband’s youth by saying, with implacable asperity, “You can spare me the math.”

Terrence McNally deserves a little math, though. Mothers and Sons is his sixteenth work to appear on Broadway. (Master Class was his ninth.) Seven of those works have been the books of musicals (RagtimeThe Full MontyCatch Me If You Can), nine of them plays (The RitzBad HabitsLove! Valour! Compassion!). A number of other key works (The Lisbon TraviataLips Together, Teeth Apart) have appeared off Broadway or regionally. For more than 50 years (he’s now 75) he has been both uncommonly productive and uncommonly consistent. He has stuck with his methods regardless of trends and faithfully tracked his main subject — how gay men made a world for themselves, and lost it — as it moved from avant-garde to painfully topical to comfortably mainstream to almost old hat. 

But only almost, as Mothers and Sons demonstrates. It’s true the storytelling is as traditional as the maroon-and-gold show curtain at the Golden; there’s something of the ’50s problem play in the way it moves so neatly through a series of arguments, the deck reshuffled as necessary by convenient calls from offstage. (The kid needs a cookie, Cal needs to check the bathtub.) And Sheryl Kaller’s efficient staging places each arguing pair in front of but somehow not inside John Lee Beatty’s elaborate Upper West Side set, performing arias and duets in more or less the park-and-bark style of McNally’s beloved classic opera productions. Nor will the play’s explanations of internalized homophobia and AIDS history provide most in the audience with new information. (Mothers and Sons is something of a sequel to McNally’s 1990 teleplay, Andre’s Mother, and often seems to be operating from within that era’s ethos.) Even the attempt by Will, the young husband, to explain Manhunt to Katharine (“I’m completely in the dark when it comes to internets,” she says) feels more obligatory than current, as if McNally had a joke quota to fill. 

Gradually, though — and the play is only 90 minutes — it becomes clear that McNally is using the cover of his mild dramaturgy to slip some new ideas across the frontier. I’m not referring to the fact that Mothers and Sons is apparently the first Broadway play to feature a married gay couple: a couple with a child, no less, conceived via egg donation and gestational surrogacy. (The gay-parenting material is so accurate I flinched sometimes, thinking McNally had read my journal.) In any case, McNally gives those in the audience who may be uncomfortable with this novelty their own kind of surrogate, in Katharine:

KATHARINE: Is one of you the father?
WILL: We both are.
KATHARINE: I meant the actual father.
WILL: We both are.
KATHARINE: Everything I say is inappropriate.

But by making Will, who is only in his mid-30s, more confident than either Katharine (in her 70s) or Cal (nearly 50), he is pointing out both a continuity with gay history and a looming discontinuity. Cal, well played by Frederick Weller, is a compulsively nice gay man who tries to put even bigots at ease; though Katharine would deny his right to mourn her son, he still works feverishly to win her over. And Katharine’s homophobia is explicitly and sympathetically linked to the emptiness of a life defined only by men: in particular, the one she lost. (“All I was was Andre’s mother: the woman who bore him.”) But Will (Bobby Steggert, flashing his Mona Lisa smile) has no patience for either attitude, both of which reek of self-pity gone sour. He is moving forward into the future, a queer Trofimov with a co-op’s-eye view of the revolution.

If Cal, living in both Will’s world of entitlement and Katharine’s world of loss, is the human link between them, the abstract link is marriage. And this is where McNally unexpectedly takes Mothers and Sons: to a consideration of the way gay people, in choosing to wed, are redeeming both the institution and the loss that opened it to them:

CAL: Andre had slept with someone other than me but I had to forgive him. He was one of the unlucky ones. I’m not saying your son was promiscuous, Mrs. Gerard.
KATHARINE: I’m sure he wasn’t.
CAL: But he wasn’t faithful either. Monogamous. 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.

It’s a damning indictment but not the end of the play. Let’s just say that fur coat comes off. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Mothers and Sons — aside from Daly’s riveting performance — is how touchingly Cal (and McNally) forgive the Andre’s mothers of this world. But they should be warned: Will won’t. 

Mothers and Sons is at the Golden Theatre.

Photo: Joan Marcus