Charles Cissel’s new play My Mother’s Severed Head benefits mostly from a great title cleverly promising heaps of Grand Guignol blood and distorted mother love.
Sadly, these promises aren’t kept in this mishmash of plots and characters that never quite meshes into a viable whole; it remains an unsteady comedy/fantasy never morphing into a smooth-running play. Cissel awkwardly interrupts the play, alternating reality—such as it is—with colorful dance/mime sequences. The characters—including the Mother/aka Severed Head—yell at each other, most often about that poor, ubiquitous head, garishly made up for the Mexican celebration of El Día de los Muertos. Every time the head speaks her mind the play comes to impudent life.
When the most vivid character in a cast of four wounded characters is the eponymous head (acted with fearless panache and humor by Nana Ponceleon) something is out of balance.
None of the other performances measure up to her vivid vocalizations and sense of loss, not even the actor playing her heartbroken son Robert, Giancarlo Herrera who is eager but unsubtle. Robert is a failed actor who feels terrible guilt about how his mother lost her head. To keep his mind off this tragedy he writes a play for himself and a young actress, Gabrielle (Katelyn Sparks, sweetly awkward and naïve) who wanders in off the street.
The play-within-the-play that Robert writes is a clumsy knockoff of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night. He and Gabrielle run through lines as they prepare for a performance that will never occur. Humorously, Robert casts her as Eugene, one of the O’Neill brothers. Their rehearsal scenes alternate with weird dance intervals signaled by sudden light shifts (wonderful lighting by Daniela Fresard). During these episodes the Father (played by Luis Alberto Garcia) gets to show off some nifty, sexy dance moves belying his otherwise strict pater familias personality.
The Father and Robert are constantly at each other’s throats trying to deal with the guilt of how the Mother lost her head the bizarre story of which comes out in a comically overwrought confession scene which leads, magically, to the reconnection of Mother’s head to her body.
The final scene, the best in My Mother’s Severed Head, almost saves the play with its energetic party vibes.
Throughout the play Camilo Sanchez Lobo provides an impeccably performed undercurrent of guitar stylings that vary from weird to haunting.
Set in a backroom of a Mexican restaurant which has become a shrine to the head of the Mother, Head is blessed with a terrific set by Wesley Cornwell and imaginative costumes by Heather Carey, but ever quite runs with the divine eccentricity of the setup which is a shame.
Richard Caliban directs with an eye on speed which too often clouds whatever good qualities the show has.
My Mother’s Severed Head has been produced under the auspices of Bruce Willis with Greg Olson & Greg Burgess.
My Mother’s Severed Head (through October 2, 2021)
Theatre One at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-744-2442 ext. 2 or visit http://www.todaytx.com/nyc/my-mother’s-severed-head/purchase
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission