Tyne Daly has made it a specialty playing unsympathetic and difficult women, for example her star turns as Mama Rose in Gypsy and Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class. Now in a new McNally play, Mothers and Sons, she plays the bitter, angry, taciturn Katherine Gerard, the Andre’s mother of McNally’s earlier one act. In Gypsy and Master Class, Daly showed us the complicated women beneath the surface which explained how and why they had turned into the tough women they were. Unfortunately, though there is some graceful writing, McNally’s new play does not allow Daly to do this until almost the last few minutes before the curtain. The end of the play where Daly allows us to see her heart is thawing is very moving but it is almost too little too late. Sheryl Kaller’s elegant direction in the style of a drawing room drama does not come to grips with this basic weakness.
Mothers and Sons returns to characters that appear in McNally’s one-act play “Andre’s Mother” which first appeared in the 1988 omnibus revue, Urban Blight, and was extended into an Emmy Award-winning one hour television drama for American Playhouse broadcast on PBS in 1990 starring Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas. In this previous play, Andre, an actor, has died of AIDS at age 29 and his mother in deep denial says not a word to his lover Cal at the memorial ceremony in New York to which she has come from her home in Dallas, Texas.
In the new play, a full-length play with no intermission, Katharine, passing through New York on her way to Europe during the winter of 2014, has dropped in on Cal unannounced. Her stated reason is to return Andre’s diary which Cal sent her (and which both she and Cal have been afraid to read). However, one of her many reasons for coming is to see if Cal is still in mourning or has moved on, as well as for her to achieve some closure for an event that has darkened her whole life. It is now 20 years since Andre’s death and his father has just died three months before, leaving Katherine entirely alone in the world.
McNally has structured the first hour of the play to bring us and Katherine and Cal up to date as well as discuss how far society has changed concerning homosexuality in the past twenty years. After a good deal of chit-chat about New York (unlisted phone numbers, East Side versus West Side, etc.), they get to what has happened to them since Andre’s death. Cal has given up acting and become a wealthy money manager (don’t ask what he does). After eight years mourning Andre, he met Will, 15 years his junior. They have been together 11 years and are now married with a precocious six-year-old Bud who never stops asking questions. All of this makes Katharine angrier still as she not only can’t accept the changes, she has chosen to close her eyes to the civil rights that gay people have achieved in the intervening years. She unaware of the AIDS quilt, and she is even more upset to hear that there is a panel to Andre with his whole name.
Katharine is also embarrassed by Cal’s calling Will his husband, but Cal admits that for his generation, it has taken some getting used to while the younger man has no trouble with the designation. She is also uncomfortable with the idea of two gay men bringing up a child. Musing about the generational divide, Cal confides that he never expected to be a father, while Will never expected not to be one. When Westchester–born Katharine says that she never felt at home in Texas, Cal states that Andre didn’t either. However, on some issues they are very far apart. Katharine still can’t accept that Andre died of AIDS and insists that he “wasn’t gay when he came to New York.” And she makes her disapproval of Cal and his lifestyle very apparent, even if unspoken. Katharine refuses to shake hands with Will when he and Bud return from an outing in the park.
However, things have moved on even if Katharine has closed her eyes to the changes. Will sums up the AIDS epidemic of the past 30 years by saying, “‘What Happened to Gay Men in the Final Decades of the 20th Century.’ First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, and then a footnote. People will shake their head and say, ‘What a terrible thing, how sad.'” Will chides Katharine with the fact that she may have lost a son but Cal has lost a generation, and worries about how he compares to Andre whom he never met. Cal wonders if he and Andre had been allowed to take marriage vows 20 years ago would things have turned out different.
All the tap dancing around the issues ceases two-thirds of the way into the play. It isn’t until then when Will says pointedly to Katharine, “What are you doing here, Mrs. Gerard?,” that the play begins to find its real dramatic center. Up until that moment, the conversation has been distant but polite as at a cocktail party where new people meet for the first time. The temperature is turned up when Katharine demands to know who gave Andre AIDS. Some of the play’s metaphors are a bit too heavy handed: Cal offers Katharine the poster of Andre as Hamlet portrayed with his vengeance face, before she reveals what she really wants is revenge for the loss of her son. And then just before the end, Katharine confesses to how she has felt all her life and what she had expected Andre to be able to do for her. The final scene is extremely poignant with naked emotion but does not take away from the first hour which seems like a waiting game before the real action begins. It is almost as if in trying not to offend anyone, McNally has been too tentative for the play’s own good.
Daly who arrives in a full length fur coat perfectly coiffed seems like a grande dame at a reception. Her silences and short answers speak volumes but she does not reveal Katharine’s true feelings until after we have given up on her redeeming herself. She makes Katharine so cold and distant as to be impenetrable, and, as such, unlikeable. We keep asking ourselves how she could have lived through the last 20 years and know so little about the social changes. At times, Frederick Weller as Cal seems uncomfortable but this can be credited to his discomfort at Katharine taking him by surprise when he had never expected to see her again or explore their unresolved issues. Bobby Steggert is fine as Will, a young gay man comfortable in his own skin. While Grayson Taylor often seems cloyingly adorable as the six-year-old Bud and at times is difficult to understand, he is entirely convincing. He is also given what may be the play’s most important line. When told what the statement that Andre “has passed” means, he simply says “Dead is better.” It takes a child to remind us that euphemisms do not change anything. McNally should have made more of this truth in the course of the play.
The setting for the vast Central Park apartment with an enviable view overlooking the park facing the Delacorte Theater at 80th Street is another magnificent John Lee Beatty creation. Jess Goldstein’s classy contemporary costumes are attractively muted but understandably not as overwhelming as the set. The unobtrusive lighting by Jeff Croiter telegraphs the passage of time as afternoon passes into evening and still Katharine Gerard, Andre’s mother, cannot bring herself to leave.
In the past, Terrence McNally has written effective and shrewd plays about the lives of gay men in the decades since AIDS in such works as Love! Valour! Compassion! and Some Men. As directed by Sheryl Kaller (who piloted the more successful Next Fall on a similar theme), Mothers and Sons takes so long getting to its real issues that it almost seems like this time McNally was afraid to state his case. Even with the incomparable Tyne Daly in the leading role, Mothers and Sons, McNally’s twentieth Broadway show, is only partially successful though the affecting final scene is one you will long remember. It is the sort of play you want to embrace more than you can as its heart is in the right place, but it fails to articulate what it came to say.
Mothers and Sons (closing June 22, 2014)
John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.mothersandsonsbroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission