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A Mother, a Daughter, and a Gun

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Halloween may be over, but there's at least one monster still stalking Midtown Manhattan. And believe it or not, it's currently holed up at Dodger Stages, where it's mostly being held in check by a neurotic woman with a revolver. At the rate the two of them are going at it, it's only a matter of time until we're all devoured.

Only in the theatre could being gnawed on and digested by such a frightening beast be a desirable, even a pleasurable experience. But it's far and away the best part about Barra Grant's new play A Mother, a Daughter, and a Gun, which is in every other way as obvious and creative as its title.

Yes, the pistol-packing daughter, Jessica (Veanne Cox), is technically at the center of the action. But it's her mother, Beatrice, who steals the spotlight from her with the same determination she unwittingly ruins her life. That you end up siding with the devil in this particular struggle is the play's biggest problem, and not just because the actress playing Beatrice makes her the most embraceable, human demon to tread the boards since the relatively recent revivals of Medea and Gypsy.

So give Olympia Dukakis credit for giving this show a thread of a connection to those classic works of theatre. Leaping right into Beatrice, wearing her acid-coated tongue and poison-dripping fangs like a perfectly fitted Halloween costume, and braying in a voice that could halt subway service for hours, Dukakis brings out every detail in a woman who will never be ignored.

Beatrice's emotional and sexual frustration, stemming from an unfulfilling marriage and personal goals that never came fruition, have reduced her to a needy creature who sees in her daughter the hope for a better future that, for her, will never come to pass. That's what makes Dukakis's Beatrice so horrifying: you believe that in the ninth circle of her heart she does love Jessica, but isn't remotely equipped to show it, so she responds by ruining the lives of those around her.

She's certainly decimated Jessica's self-esteem so much that she's been forced to settle for marrying a weakling named David, who's recently begun an affair with a younger, prettier woman. That, and Jessica's newly discovered pregnancy, were enough of an impetus to convince her to purchase that titular gun to put them out of her misery once and for all.

Only one problem: Jessica won a ham at a nearby deli and invited 20 strangers to her apartment to share it. She threw the ham out, of course, but the people are still coming, and murder-suicide doesn't tend to go over well at parties on the Upper West Side. So, while her world falls apart - and while her mother, trying to "help," only makes things worse (among other things, she invites an ancient flame of Jessica's to rekindle old feelings - the celebration must go on.

That's how these plays work, after all. Our seeing Jessica's tragedy played out against the party's comedy (nearly every guest is an insensate laugh-getter) will provide enough dramatic juxtaposition to fuel our journey through the conclusion of Jessica's struggle. Or something. And, in the grandest pseudo-Chekhovian tradition, we must additionally learn the fate of each and every bullet we see Jessica slip into the gun at the top of the show.

Yes, people and ceilings get shot (which, apparently, does go over well on the Upper West Side). No, none of this makes sense. Director Jonathan Lynn correctly treats the play with as much seriousness as is possible with this story, and he keeps the momentum at proper levels in the comic and dramatic scenes. Jesse Poleshuck's set isn't especially attractive, but the modular walls and doors he's designed help draw effective, quick-changing distinctions between Jessica's apartment's public and private areas.

But none of this is enough to make a theatrical mountain from this rejected-sitcom molehill. Cox, doing her finest Veanne Cox impression, communicates Jessica's surface-level desperation, but doesn't dig deep enough to generate much sympathy for her travails. The ever-wonderful George S. Irving effortlessly elicits laughs from Jessica's father Alvin, but he never makes you understand, as he should, why he or anyone else enables Beatrice the Magnetic Monster.

The dialogue never explains that, either. Right now, we don't need it to - Dukakis convincingly makes Beatrice her own perpetual-motion machine of rage and disappointment, the type of woman who may fade in brilliance but will never disappear entirely. But it's almost entirely Dukakis; there's not enough here for any average actress to sink her teeth into.

What we get instead is Clever Symbolism, primarily in a teasing moment at the start of the play, when Jessica accidentally shoots at Beatrice when she's entering the apartment. It's a foreshadowing of things to come: Jessica now has the means to dispatch her mother, but is unlikely to succeed at it. This message of firearm-induced empowerment might well bother anyone who doesn't find guns a laughing matter, and Grant certainly makes as good a case as any for the necessity of gun control.

For now, there's little point in worrying. As Beatrice says, "Focus on the details, the larger picture will go away." In her life, perhaps. In playwriting, not so much. At least Dukakis is on hand to deliciously, deliriously blur the line between the two.

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A Mother, a Daughter, and a Gun
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Dodger Stages / Stage 3, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge