April 27, 2024

"Mother Play" is a Work of True Compassion

After seeing Mother Play, Paula Vogel’s semi-autobiographical three-hander which opened at the Hayes Theater on the very last day of the 2023-2024 theater season, my friends and I went next door to Sardi’s for a post-show dinner. While we waited for our drinks to arrive, I went to the ladies room. And when I came out of my stall, I found a woman standing in the middle of the room, her eyes brimming with tears. With no prompting from me, she explained that she was still reeling from having just seen “the most remarkable play.” And, of course, that play turned out to be Mother Play

Now as regular readers will know, I am a longstanding Paula Vogel stan but I suspect that even those of you who might be new to her work will, like the woman in the Sardi’s restroom, find yourselves deeply moved by this play.  And that will be especially so if, like Vogel and me, you’re a member of the Baby Boom generation and was raised by one of those mothers who felt thwarted in those days before women’s liberation took root and so poured her ambitions—and her anger—into her children.

The full title of the play is Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions and it tracks four decades of ejections and rejections in the relationships between Phyllis, a single mother whose husband left her for another woman, and her children Carl and Martha. And as this memory play opens, a middle-aged Martha looks back at the day when the three of them—Phyllis then 37, Carl 13 and she 11—moved into a dingy basement apartment in a D.C. suburb that they could only afford if they took on the building’s janitorial duties.  

Carl, who shares a name with Vogel’s real-life brother who died of AIDS in 1988, is one of those sensitive boys who reads serious literature, listens to classical music and yearns to live in someplace like New York or Paris. Martha, a stand-in for the playwright, is socially inept and just trying to avoid the school bullies who make fun of her. But the main preoccupation for both siblings is Phyllis, which also happens to be the name of Vogel’s mother.

Phyllis is furious about the hand that life has dealt her and she deals with it by guzzling gin, chain smoking and criticizing her kids. The latter intensifies when both of them later come out as gay.  “Was it too much to ask for one normal child? “ she rages.

Tina Landau’s deft direction balances the pathos of the family’s interactions with the humor they employ to survive them. The set and video projections also provide some clever moments of levity. But it’s the performances that drove the show home for me and each of the actors—Jessica Lange as Phyllis (click here to read an interview with her) Jim Parsons as Carl and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Martha—is superb. 

Several critics have compared Mother Play to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie: a memory play with an absent father, overbearing mother, sensitive son, awkward daughter. But while Glass Menagerie may be the greater play, Mother Play is the more compassionate one.

In his playand throughout the rest of his lifeWilliams struggles to forgive himself for leaving his mother and sister behind. Vogel's play holds onto her anger toward a mother who emotionally abandoned her and her beloved brother but it also tells those of us still trying to understand mothers who were overtly or covertly ambivalent about motherhood that simply acknowledging the past might be the best way to move on from it.

April 23, 2024


The Bard was born 460 years ago today—and died exactly 52 years later in 1616. But of course his works live on even though debates about whether or not he actually wrote them do too (click here to read the latest). I confess that in the past I've declared moratoriums on seeing his work but I keep coming back (my theatergoing buddy Bill and I are scheduled to see a simulcast of Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth next week). So Happy Birthday Will!

April 20, 2024

Their Wobbly Books Cause "Lempicka" and "Suffs" to Stumble More Than They Should

What’s the hardest job in show business?  There are obviously lots of contenders but right now as one musical after another is opening on Broadway, I’ve been thinking that the answer to that question might be writing the book of a musical. In some ways it’s a thankless job. When a show works, the composer usually gets the credit (after all, it is called a musical) and when a show doesn’t work, the book writer often gets the blame. 

I thought a lot about that as I watched two ambitious musicals—Lempicka and Suffs—that opened this week to middling reviews. Although both shows are inspired by the lives of real people, neither is based on pre-existing material like a book, movie or superhero comic. So it was up to their book writers to determine exactly what story they wanted to tell and how to tell it. 

Alas, neither Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould who collaborated on the book for Lempicka; nor Shaina Taub, who not only wrote the book for Suffs but also composed its score, wrote its lyrics and performs as the show’s main character, manage to do this as successfully as I’d hoped.

Lempicka tells the story of the Polish-Jewish artist Tamara Lempicka who rose to fame between the World Wars for the bold art deco nudes she painted. She also had a colorful personal life that included escapes from both the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion of Paris as well as a string of affairs with both men and women. 

So Kreitzer and Gould had a lot to work with. The problem is that they worked so hard to cram all of it into two-and-a-half hours that they forgot to include a reason to make us care about any of it. Maybe things got lost in rewrites during the show’s 16-year gestation period.  For example, a too-expensive-not-to-use car that resembles the Batmobile sits on the stage but no longer serves any real purpose in the storytelling.

The current book just slides from one scene in Lempicka’s life to the next, without taking time to develop her character or those of the people around her. And while Eden Espinosa who has been with the show through most of its long development process (click here to read an interview with her) brings the rattle-the-rafters intensity to Lempicka's songs that she honed as an Elphaba in Wicked, she isn’t able to flesh out this character.

And her castmates are similarly hobbled. One minute Lempicka’s husband (played by Andrew Samonsky) is incensed that she’s spending so much time in her studio and the next he’s boasting about her accomplishments. Similarly a female lover quickly switches from being a woman who doesn’t want to be tied down to one who is clingy and can’t bear to be apart from Lempicka. 

That lover, called Rafaela in the play, is supposed to have inspired the painter’s most iconic works but that presents another problem for this production, which clearly wants to use reproductions of those images but is constrained because they all feature white women and Rafaela is played by the black actress Amber Iman. The script calls for viewers to make the instant connection between the paintings and their subject but whenever someone did that it took me right out of Lempicka’s already too-thinly-realized world. 

By comparison Suffs has clear stakes and a fairly straight-forward storyline: the campaign in the early part of the 20th century to get American women the right to vote. Its main character is Alice Paul, the real-life feminist who was one of the main strategist in the suffrage movement, from which the show takes its title. 

But sensitive to the politics of our day, Taub tries to be inclusive, telling the stories of a range of women, including the African-American activists Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell and the working-class labor organizer Ruza Wenclawska. However as good as it is to celebrate these women, we don’t truly to get to know any of them well. And we get to know Paul, who lived to be 92 and a fierce advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, least of all.

Still, the production has improved considerably since its run at the Public Theater two years ago (click here to read my review of that). Taub and director Leigh Silverman have replaced half of the songs, hired a new choreographer, brought in new costume, set and lighting designers and enlisted two high-profile producers: almost-President Hillary Clinton and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

They’ve also shuffled around the cast, moving some actors into different roles and getting rid of the well-meaning but confusing colorblind casting that made it difficult to tell if actors of color were playing African-American feminists or white characters.

But what they didn’t do was deepen their characters, give them motivations that made us understand why they were the ones willing to risk so much to empower all women.  Instead the characters justify their actions by occasionally breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience “this really happened.” 

That may be so but what we want—OK, what I want—from shows like this one is an emotional truth, an understanding of why people do things instead of just an accounting of what they did. 

Suffs may now be an entertaining history lesson (it's chocked full of memorable anthems and the row of women seated behind me cheered them all) but I'm not so sure that the show will make it into the musical theater history books.

April 13, 2024

An Uplifting Visit to "Tuesdays with Morrie"

It’s being an unusually busy theater season this spring with a baker’s dozen of Broadway shows still scheduled to open between now and the end of the month. So it’s no surprise that smaller shows—even very good ones— might get lost in the crush. And they don’t come much smaller than Tuesdays with Morrie, a two-hander based on journalist Mitch Albom’s 1997 bestseller about the life lessons Albom drew from a series of weekly visits with Morrie Schwartz, his former college professor who was dying from ALS, the horrible degenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The memoir topped The New York Times nonfiction list for nearly half a year and, like millions of others, I read it and was deeply moved by the mutually-sustaining friendship between the two men as the older man figured out how to die with grace and the younger how to live with purpose. 

The book was turned into a TV movie in 1999 with Hank Azaria as Mitch and Jack Lemmon as Morrie. A few years later, Albom teamed up with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher for a stage version that ran at the Minetta Lane Theatre for 112 performances with Jon Tenney as Mitch and Alvin Epstein as Morrie. 

I didn’t see either of those versions. But a new company called Sea Dog Theater revived the show last month and I finally caught up with it last week. This time around Mitch is played by Sea Dog's co-founder and artistic director Christopher J. Domig and Morrie is played by the invaluable Broadway vet Len Cariou.

Their production is a bare bones affair. It’s staged in a chapel room at St. George’s Episcopal Church, a lovely old 19th century Romanesque building on East 16th Street. The set consists primarily of a piano (Albom initially set out to be a jazz pianist) and a wheelchair. There isn't much drama; even if you don’t know the book or movie, it’s obvious that Morrie is going to die. Yet, to my surprise, I found myself deeply moved all over again. 

That response wasn't a sure thing because I had all kinds of worries going in to see the show. The first is that although the chapel at St. George’s is beautiful, its acoustics aren’t great, particularly during the early exchanges between the actors. But as they drew nearer to the audience and my ear adjusted that proved less of a problem. 

I also wondered if Cariou was strong enough to make it through such an arduous role. He entered the chapel slowly, leaning heavily on a cane on one side and the arm of a young assistant on the other before grabbing onto the piano for support before the show began. But although Carious, who is now 84, may no longer be as spry as he was when he won the Tony for playing the title character in the original 1979 production of Sweeney Todd, his acting chops are still supple.

Under Erwin Maas’ deft direction, Cariou sidesteps the story's innate sentimentality and makes Morrie a real person, portraying him as cranky sometimes, fearful at others but always determined to live whatever life remains to the fullest. It’s an impressive performance and it’s nicely balanced by Domig's. (click here to read more about their collaboration).

But frankly what I worried about most was seeing re-created the sections in the book that deal in graphic detail with Morrie’s declining physical abilities. But Albom and Hatcher’s text focuses more on the metaphysical: the beauties of love and friendship and art. What I feared might be depressing turned out to be totally uplifting. Tuesdays with Morrie is only running for one more week.  Seek it out if you can.