Mar 24, 2014
The curtain rises on two people frozen in what feels like a thaw-proof silence. Their eyes are fixed straight ahead, and the possibility of even their gazes’ intersecting seems remote; forget about a meeting of minds. With these figures implacably embodied by Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller in Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,” any dialogue that might occur seems destined to be nasty, brutish and short.
Yet a conversation is going to happen, as surely as Gary Cooper faced down his enemies in “High Noon.” It has to. These people have so very, very much to say. More to the point, so does Mr. McNally, a probing and enduring dramatist who has set out to take the pulse of a gay American subculture several decades after the plague that altered its form and content forever.
“Mothers and Sons,” which opened on Monday night at the John Golden Theater in an impeccably acted production directed by Sheryl Kaller, is wrapped in a sense of urgency that paradoxically saps it as a drama. It wears its significance defiantly and a bit stiffly, rather as Ms. Daly’s character, a Dallas matron visiting Manhattan, wears the big, blocky fur coat in which we first see her.
Though “Mothers and Sons” has only four characters, and covers only 90 minutes in their lives, Mr. McNally has drawn an ambitiously wide-ranging map. Using as his starting point an uncomfortable reunion between an eternally angry mother and the former lover of her dead son, Mr. McNally charts the gains and losses, victories and defeats for gay men — or, specifically, middle-class gay men in Manhattan — in the years since AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s.
The play’s structure is that of an old-fashioned drawing room drama of confrontation, in which civilized people say the unsayable. (Its handsomely appointed setting, a Central Park West apartment conjured by John Lee Beatty, might almost have come from the era of S. N. Behrman.) But make no mistake. Mr. McNally intends this also to be a memorial play of large scope.
As one character says, of the time when to be told you had AIDS was effectively a death sentence: “First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote. … It’s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away.”
That Mr. McNally is doing his best to forestall the anesthetizing process is admirable and suitable. Few theater artists would seem better qualified for the task. Mr. McNally was one of the first playwrights to bring the subject of AIDS into the mainstream, in light-handed but heavy-hearted works that include “The Lisbon Traviata” (1989), “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” (1991) and “Love! Valour! Compassion!”(1995).
There was also a wrenching sketch from 1988, “Andre’s Mother,” which introduced the two adversarial people who begin “Mothers and Sons.” That’s Katharine Gerard (Ms. Daly) and Cal Porter (Mr. Weller), who met at the memorial service for Andre Gerard — son of Katharine, lover to Cal — depicted in the earlier play. (“Andre’s Mother” was expanded into a 1990 television play, starring Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas.)
Mr. McNally, with forgivable license, has changed the date of that service to 1994. It is now a symmetrical two decades since Katharine and Cal’s first encounter, and they have not spoken since. The newly widowed Katharine, en route from Dallas to Europe, has sought out Cal in the apartment he shares with his husband, Will Ogden (Bobby Steggert), and their adored 6-year-old son, Bud Ogden-Porter (a pert Grayson Taylor).
That’s right, Cal has a husband and son, something that would have been unthinkable two decades earlier. Katharine — for whom time stopped when Andre died, if not before — has trouble wrapping her mind around such changes. So, in a way, does Cal. The gap between then and now looms large in “Mothers and Sons,” though it’s not as vast as the gap between Cal and Katharine.
“Mothers and Sons” is propelled by people peering into and shouting over that chasm. It is, in essence, a debate play with fraught emotional underpinnings, and it doesn’t avoid the stasis of that genre. It also tends to sabotage its potential to move us by making the debate, rather than psychological credibility, its first priority.
As Katharine and Cal (and later, Will) exhume Andre’s life and its legacy, they say the sort of wounding things that normally lead to the stormy exits and slammed doors that end conversations for good. Yet here they shift from bruising outbursts to facile banter without even a cooling-down period.
The performers are skilled enough that we don’t hear the sound of gears stripping. But they can’t entirely justify their emotional U-turns, nor keep at bay our sense that we are following a menu of subjects that must be covered before the evening’s end.
Within those limitations, the cast creates some beautifully observed moments. You feel that you understand the resentment as well as the affection that binds Cal and Will through their body language alone. Mr. Weller’s Cal has a shucked, eager-to-please quality that is nicely balanced by the physical confidence of Mr. Steggert’s Will (who is 15 years Cal’s junior), and the contrast speaks volumes about the different eras in which they came of age as gay men.
Ms. Daly, last seen on Broadway in a triumph of skill over unlikely casting as Maria Callas in Mr. McNally’s “Master Class,” again proves herself one of our most formidable stage actresses. I wish this play hadn’t saddled Katharine with so much self-flagellating self-revelation. Ms. Daly rides her overtly confessional speeches like a veteran jockey on a tearaway horse.
She and the play are at their strongest, though, not in what is spoken, however articulately, but in tacitly suggesting a sorrow beyond words that is always waiting to resurface. Images of the dead Andre — whether materializing out of memory or assuming the palpable form of photographs — keep ambushing Katharine. The startled pain that contorts Ms. Daly’s face at those moments is in itself a resonant elegy for a ravaged generation.