Nancy Redman has talent. She can act different characters convincingly. She can sing, sort of. She can write.
What she can’t do is edit.
Redman’s A Séance with Mom at the Chain Studio Theatre veers dizzyingly from one character to another, characters that include middle-aged Nadine who searches for her Mom; her mom, Gussie; an old Reformed Jewish Rabbi; several other Gussies; and, oh yes, Jesus and Gary Cooper, not to mention Shakespeare. It has to be mentioned that Nadine is the only character who isn’t dead.
On a set that is the definition of bare-boned—a beaten-up typewriter table, a chair and a walker—the main character, Nadine, is introduced by a wobbly Redman entering using a cane. (Whether Redman, herself, has difficulty walking isn’t clear.) On the typewriter table—remember typewriters?—sits a small cardboard box which is never referred to in any way, shape or form.
Séance begins innocently and amusingly but quickly darkly comic, then ugly.
Nadine wakes up suddenly to find an old Jewish man in her bedroom. She wonders if this hallucination is a side effect of taking melatonin. The vision turns out to be a Rabbi who somehow knows that Nadine is yearning to see her dead mother again. Why is revealed towards the end of Redman’s one-woman show.
The Rabbi kvetches and prevaricates in a comical Jewish accent, spouting Yiddish phrases to bond with Nadine. He tries to conjure Nadine’s mom, Gussie Plotnick, but humorously keeps getting the wrong Gussie Plotnick.
While they wait, Nadine is persuaded to demonstrate her singing technique which involves a tiresome preparation—“long spine, shoulders down, rib expand”—leading up to a not-very-good rendition of a Noël Coward song.
Finally, the real, true Gussie materializes and she is a lollapalooza of a ghost!
Gussie P doesn’t utter a word unless it’s fortissimo. She reeks of sarcasm and doesn’t let Nadine get a word in edgewise causing Nadine to get more and more desperate, longing to tell her Mom why her presence was so urgently desired at this time.
Nadine reveals two things about herself, one concerning her health and one a sordid bit of family history, both of which Gussie dismisses airily and angrily while at the same time going on and on about their very complicated family tree and about trips to Robert Hall [a well-known clothier in the Fifties] to find the newest styles that grandpa, the tailor, could copy for his family. Doctors’ names are endlessly bandied about, all the while avoiding Nadine’s need to communicate honestly with her mom while her presence is still palpable.
When Nadine says to Gussie, “I’ve been diagnosed with M.S.,” Gussie retorts, “Ridiculous, Nadine, no one in our family has M.S.” That subject, depressing and important as it is, is never brought up again.
Then Nadine goes on and on about being sexually abused by “Herman” who is never exactly positioned in the family tree, but appears to be one of Gussie’s husbands. Of course, Gussie disbelieves her own daughter in a most egregious manner while the Rabbi interjects mood lightening bits and pieces.
So many details, repetitions and misleading tidbits fill Séance to the bursting point that it becomes impossible not to contemplate what it’s all about. What does Redman want us to know or feel? She makes so many disparate points and takes the audience on so many arbitrary tangents—Jesus…really!?—that the show gets bogged down and plods to an unconvincingly saccharine ending.
Redman’s monologue is closer to a novel than a theater piece. It badly needs trimming. Her overstuffed content overshadows her fine acting talents.
Séance with Mom was directed by the extraordinary Austin Pendleton who allows Redman extraordinary leeway.
A Séance with Mom (through September 3, 2023)
Chain Studio Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 4th floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.our.show/nancyaseancewithmom
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission