The script for Anna Moench’s Mothers begins with a lot of notes. There are prescriptions for casting, props, and set; a list of rules governing character interaction in the play’s first act; and a long explanation of the racial dynamics Moench wants to explore. Mothers, she writes, takes place in “an off-kilter, fun-house mirror version of our reality, an alternate universe [where] people of color are at the top of the hierarchy, and white people (called ‘beige people’ in this world) are at the bottom.” But, she adds, “the audience will feel a sickening feeling as the racial power dynamics of our world and history start clawing their way onstage in Act Two.”
There are plenty of reasons, racial and gender power dynamics among them, that audiences might get a “sickening feeling” as Mothers plummets toward its final destination: It’s an apocalypse play about parenting, or a parenting play about the apocalypse, and over the course of its intermissionless two acts, the land it lives in — a land of petty, privileged rivalry over all things baby — morphs into something more akin to Sarah Kane’s Blasted. The play’s second half is devoted to all sorts of survival-based horrors, but here’s the thing: That sickening feeling Moench is hoping for? I didn’t feel it. I got the idea that probably I should, but something about the play’s progression left me cold. Mothers wants to dig into a lot of things — race, gender, class, primal instinct, our fears of the world’s ever-increasing litany of terrors, how all of these things affect what it means to be a parent, especially a mom — but its observations, even its twists, often feel more predictable than revelatory. Meanwhile, Robert Ross Parker’s very clean production creates a sense of disconnect from the story’s descent into gritty, bloody chaos.
We begin at a Mommy Baby Meetup in an undefined suburb outside “The City.” (In Moench’s off-kilter reality, we might be in a version of Connecticut or Orange County, with the lights of New York or L.A. glowing just over the horizon.) Wilson Chin’s slick, modular set has a futuristic waiting-room feel — pink floor, fake plants, white geometric “furniture” that you can’t really sit on. Three mothers look out through the fourth wall, watching their children in an unseen play area. Two — Meg (Satomi Blair) and Vick (Jasmine Batchelor) — are old friends, and Vick is in town for a visit, notably without her child. Ariana (Maechi Aharanwa) is Meg’s new bestie. She’s got three kids (“You’re like the mom guru!” Meg gushes) and plenty of opinions on Vick’s parenting choices. As tensions flare oh-so-politely between busy working mom Vick and proudly stay-at-home mom Ariana, the vapid, cheery Meg attempts to play both sides — while Ty (Max Gordon Moore), the only dad at the play place, and Gladys (Tina Chilip), a watchful, taciturn nanny, look on.
For a while, Mothers is all about the familiar competition bubbling up among Vick, Ariana, and Meg. It’s a three-way wrestling match of upper- middle-class passive aggression — whose baby walked/talked/read first, whose pediatrician/sex life/work-life balance is best — plus the odd reminder that we’re not quite in Kansas anymore. “My husband’s beige … So my son’s half-beige,” Vick says, smiling, groping to make conversation with Ty. “I’m just saying I’m an ally,” she adds hastily.
Moench is cataloguing recognizable microaggressions, presumptions, and privileges inside a slightly skewed frame. And it’s not that her jabs don’t land and that some of them aren’t pretty funny — it’s just that they don’t quite add up. The accusations Ariana and Vick toss at each other quickly start to feel tired; the replacements of things like Facebook and Instagram with Facenet and Constapic are good for a brief grin but for little more; and the play, despite some escalation in the mothers’ rivalry, soon starts to tread water. But then there’s nothing like a literal explosion to get yourself out of a rut. Halfway through Mothers, the play place — the town, the country presumably — is hit with some kind of attack. The game changes: We’re no longer in Desperate Housewives or Dance Moms but in full-on Survivor mode, but for real.
The problem is, we don’t really feel the force of that grim reality for a long, long time, if ever. Moench herself asks in her script that big teddy bears be used in place of the mothers’ babies, and notes that “a bold, abstracted, heightened set is preferable in production.” Parker and Chin have obeyed these directives, and although bits of Chin’s set collapse during the explosion, they do it so cleanly — and are accompanied by so little else in the aesthetic world to tell the story of sudden rupture and heightening chaos — that we have a hard time registering the fact that the world as these mothers know it really has come to an end. Eventually (and not really surprisingly: Moench follows the pretty basic rules of apocalypse fiction), some horrible decisions have to be made, and some gruesome shit goes down. When the atrocities began, I heard the audience member next to me whisper to her friend, “Wait … what? Why?” Parker’s staging isn’t telling the visual story of the play’s true stakes. The space and the characters stay too kempt for too long. When Ty reports on soldiers outside the walls who would “like, for sure” rape the women were they to venture out, we say, in our dutiful audience brains, “Okay” — but our stomachs don’t turn. We don’t quite believe it.
Both the petty drama of Mothers’s first act and the dark, anarchic descent of its second act have a wearying lack of real surprise to them — and so it’s the little moments, the character eccentricities and pops of personality, that keep us engaged. Batchelor is sharp and thoughtful as Vick, a smart, self-justifying lawyer with a lot of hidden pain who really suffers fools poorly. She’s freaky-funny when she bursts out, wild-eyed and completely serious in a moment of joking about how frequently her 9-month-old son wakes her up at night: “NOT AGAIN! NO! NO! FUCK YOU! I’M GOING TO KILL US BOTH, RIGHT NOW!” And Aharanwa does a great queen bee — the kind of woman who will sweetly give you advice all day long and might cut you if you return the favor. She’s hilarious to watch in the background while Vick and Meg get into a fight, delightedly eating snacks and darting her eyes back and forth between them like she’s watching pro tennis. And as “Ty the Guy,” Moore does weird, excellent work with one of the show’s wackiest moments: A long, house-lights-up monologue straight to the audience in which he explains to us that, at least when he’s not flaccid, he’s got a very large penis.
That monologue is in fact the last in a series. Just before the world falls apart, Ariana, Meg, and Vick all get to speak their truths, too, and these moments of unvarnished honesty are some of the most affecting in the play. They stand noticeably outside the rules Mothers has set for itself, and I found myself wishing that Moench had found a way to infuse her play with more of these deep dives into each character’s psyche. All these women start to fracture and fade in the play’s second act, while Chilip’s Gladys — the unbreakable immigrant, the mother who’s caring for other people’s children, the one who will do what it takes, with no bourgeois pussyfooting or shame — comes predictably to the fore. (And, equally predictably, the play’s only man heads quickly toward monster.) Chilip does serious, focused, nicely underplayed work as Gladys, but she can’t change the fact that the story she’s given to play out, class commentary though it may be, is one we’ve heard before. What we haven’t heard are the specific voices of these people — women and man, mothers and father. Mothers is most alive when we get a glimpse, however briefly and whether they’re fighting for status or survival, of their real, full dimensions.
Mothers is at the Duke on 42nd Street through October 12.