Reinventing the Family Melodrama 

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A wealthy family meets for a New Years Eve dinner at a swank resort, bicker, insult the help, drink, chow down and eventually a secret is revealed that will rock their complacent lives forever. It sounds like the stuff of soap opera, or bad television, or bad theater, but as written by Lisa Ebersole, and performed by pros headed by Buck Henry and Holland Taylor, Mother holds your attention in its brief running time by never catering to audience expectation. Tickets are inexpensive; twenty-five dollars gets you in, and if you pay thirty, you get to sit on the well-appointed stage, convincingly decorated by set designer Sandra Goldmark, and sip a glass of Prosecco. The four person cast, which includes Daddy Henry, Mama Taylor, Ebersole as their flailing daughter and Haskell King as their aggressive son, also down a lot of Prosecco, as well as other strong drinks; it’s rewarding to watch the on stage audience members react to what’s being said because their slightly tipsy facial expressions often match and capitalize on the family’s familiar, boozy talk.

In Ebersole’s play, you have to really listen to what her family is saying; this mother, son, daughter and father don’t drop expository information solely for your benefit, as in ninety percent of other family dramas. These relations are stuck in a rut of private allusion and incessant scab picking that never feels less than realistic, but the play wouldn’t be as compelling as it is without the distinctive undertow of danger that runs underneath everything that’s being said. There are certain points early on when we’re not sure if this play might not take place in some surreal netherworld; there is a reference to kidnapping and a few other loose ends that keep us on our toes. Mother comes to a boil when Chester (Keith Randolph Smith) enters the scene. A long-time maitre’ d of the family’s favorite restaurant, Chester displays an exaggerated deference to these moneyed folk that often seems like its going to tip over into some kind of menace, and in what might be the climax of the play, he has to use his physical strength to restrain a very drunken Henry from leaving the table.

In this temperate New York July, you’re not going to find two more splendid theatrical performances than the ones given by Henry and Taylor here. His character staggers on three or even four sheets to the wind, so Henry has the tricky task of making that consistently funny and believable, and he does so, without once falling into easy shtick or cliché. Taylor makes for a magnificent WASP matron in winter, quivering with loneliness, plagued by unspecified guilt, lording it over her financier husband yet actually dependent on him, even if the play’s final (ironic?) lines would have things otherwise. As their cowed children, Ebersole and King make the most of their defeated brats, still tied to their parents financially and emotionally. Mother makes subtle reference to our current hard-times economic climate, but never in any forced way. The whole play feels completely organic, and it stands as a breath of fresh air on what has long been a stale theme.

(photo Credit: Alison Cartwright)

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