My mother was visiting New York, and she asked me to get us tickets for a show or two. She was inspired after seeing a commercial for Broadway theatre. What was it called...? Oh, yes, the Tonys (some other time, I'll go on interminably about how the national broadcast of the Tony Awards has not actually ever existed to recognize excellence in theatre). Once again, TDF came through. We saw a matinee performance of Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina this past weekend, and an evening performance of Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons on Tuesday, and both plays were truly something.
In a simple sentence, the play is about homophobia among transvestites in the early sixties. But more broadly, it dramatizes something easily taken for granted: that even small subsets of society are not necessarily homogenous. These men rely on each other for everything from emotional support to beauty tips (sometimes one and the same), and yet, highly charged differences of opinion end up marring this particular weekend together and changing relationships forever. The most impressive element of the production is how every character is somewhat sympathetic, no matter how they score on the villainy spectrum. Whether it's someone insidiously blackmailing an acquaintance, a daughter spitefully confronting strangers, or a husband breaking his wife's heart, each person is clearly motivated by an understandable pain. There are no easy reconciliations, and it's tempting to watch a scene and disapprovingly marvel at how very bitchy someone's being. But an audience member (if not a fellow character) can at least appreciate the hurt wrought by a character's lived experiences.
Scott Pask's sets and Justin Townsend's lighting worked well together to evoke a Catskills lodge while also providing flexible playing areas. The given circumstances of the play set the costumes, wigs, and makeup designers up for the biggest challenge, however. Rita Ryack did a fantastic job of dressing the men for the time period, their tastes, and their varying levels of expertise at their secret hobby, and Jason P. Hayes' hair and makeup were just as beautifully spot-on.
By the by, here's an informative blog post on the founder of the real Catskills getaway that inspired the play.
Mothers and Sons
In this play, a mother unexpectedly visits her son's old boyfriend, now thriving in an upper west side apartment with his husband and son twenty years after her son's death from AIDS.
It's a tense situation, for sure, and such an encounter in real life would most certainly be awkward. But too many of the production's transitions have a clunkiness that just cannot be excused by claims to verisimilitude. The text also suffers from some heavy-handed didacticism, but this feature tries to make a case for itself by emphasizing how the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s has been criminally forgotten.
And so the best part of this production is Tyne Daly. I'm so glad I got to see her perform in this.* My favorite detail, of almost anything I can remember seeing lately, is her business with a pair of gloves for the first half hour. Her son's boyfriend repeatedly asks if he can take her coat, and you know she's going to stay once she let's him. But long before that she removes her gloves from her purse...and a little later puts one on...and a little later takes it off...and a little later returns the pair to her purse. And Tyne Daly makes it look entirely subconscious.
One more thought, that I hesitate to share because I'm afraid it borders on a potshot, but here goes... With so many charming (if frighteningly talented) children on Broadway recently in everything from Annie to Matilda, I was disappointed by this play's child actor, who seemed stuck on a one-note version of precociousness that I found insufferable (and some of my favorite people are kids). He's in so few scenes that one might shrug him off, if not for the fact that he's meant to trigger a moment at the end that has the potential to be beautifully poignant...but it rings a little false. Tyne Daly's character is reacting this strongly to...him?**
Seeing Theatre with my Mother
Before this week, the last thing I'd seen with my mom was Hugh Jackman's one-man show. It was my birthday, but she picked it out because...Hugh Jackman (and sure, it wouldn't have been my first choice, but I'm not really complaining because...Hugh Jackman). Before that, my undergraduate self took her to see my college's production of Six Characters in Search of an Author so that I could point out the costume pieces I worked on. And that was really all she got out of it, not because it was a college production, but because it was Six Characters in Search of an Author and she was herself.
So I was unsurprised that she responded positively to the realism of both plays. But her potential reaction to the content of the plays was not something I had considered beforehand.***
She raised us in the Roman Catholic Church, and was affectionate but very conservative in her parenting (just ask Jonathon about how challenging it was to date me). Despite this relatively strict upbringing, and while we haven't had many conversations about sexuality or gay rights, I've always had the sense that she's open-minded, compassionate, and liberal. And our play-going bore that out. After Casa Valentina, she said that she had known gender and sexuality were on a spectrum, but now she understood more about what that might mean for a person. And after Mothers and Sons, she told me she'd still love me even if I'm gay (I'm sure she was telling the truth, but I'm also sure she said it mostly to rib Jonathon, who was right there).
My own reaction to seeing Mothers and Sons with my mom was not something I had accounted for. If I had given it any thought, it would have occurred to me that the show features an outspoken woman...not unlike the one who was now spending the most time with me since the years I lived under her roof. The husband in Mothers and Sons tells the mother, "You're prickly." And after the show, considering those words and how desperately she had wanted a reciprocal relationship with her deceased son, I started crying. Yes, my mom can be prickly. But when we're together, and she's being embarrassingly familiar with strangers, or she's saying politically incorrect things because she thinks it's okay if she means it innocently, or she points out a salon's color-correcting services in a dig at my hair...I become prickly. And at this point in our adult relationship, that's just not fair to her. I can do better for the eccentric lady who was a darn good single mom for most of my childhood...and who would love me even if I'm gay, Jonathon.
*But not so glad that I joined in the thunderous applause as soon as the curtain rose. What's that about? Is the audience congratulating her on her celebrity? Really, it would seem this only disturbs the start of the performance, especially with this particular show. When the audience went wild at the appearance of Alan Rickman's character in Seminar at the same theatre, at least it was somewhat appropriate since he was playing a celebrity author, and his entrance was made in a very elaborately visible and audible scene transition.
**See Michael's reaction to George Michael's girlfriend Ann on Arrested Development.
***I really was just happy she could see something. She spent most of January 2013 hospitalized after a serious concussion, and she's still recovering from brain damage. She's not quite up to the lights, sounds, and movement of a musical yet, but being able to sit through a play is a big improvement.