Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Mama's Boy
George Street Playhouse
Review by Cameron Kelsall | Season Schedule


Betsy Aidem and Cast
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
In 1964, Marguerite Oswald took to the stage of New York's Town Hall to plead her son's case before the public. The event sold over $5,000 worth of tickets, an enormous sum of money at the time; the event organizers provided a $25,000 cash bond in case riots led to damages of the property. Mrs. Oswald's performative defense serves as the frame for Rob Urbinati's Mama's Boy, the latest fictional reconstruction of the JFK assassination, receiving its area premiere at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey.

Urbinati is not the first writer to tell the story from the Oswald family's point of view. Don DeLillo took a stab with his novel "Libra"; an extended fantasia on the subject makes up a good chunk of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's musical Assassins. However, few works have mined the notoriously fraught relationship between Lee Harvey Oswald and his mother, who clings to her youngest son despite his rejection and revulsion. On paper, it seems like the making of a fascinating character study; in Urbinati's execution, it's a garish melodrama with all the depth of a Lifetime movie.

The play rotates between Mrs. Oswald's dialogue at Town Hall (she's played by veteran actress Betsy Aidem; Boyd Gaines provides the pre-recorded voice of her interviewer) and the year leading up to JFK's assassination, during which Lee (Michael Goldsmith) struggles to accept his life and his familial obligations after returning from his defection to the Soviet Union. Despite my aversion to one-person shows, I couldn't help but feel that the play only came alive when Aidem was addressing the audience directly in monologue. The book scenes drag dreadfully, with unnecessary exposition and tin-ear dialogue dominating the day.

Aidem is a captivating actress. Unfortunately, Marguerite Oswald is presented in this play as a Freudian caricature so outrageous Philip Roth would blush. It's quite simply an unplayable role. Goldsmith fares better, tapping into the constant inadequacy Lee feels. Lee longs to believe in something, but is equally disheartened in the Soviet system he strove to adopt and the American way of life that has never quite fit for him. Goldsmith communicates this well, and you get the sense that his performance mightily improves upon the material he's been given. The play stops short of making any clear judgment of Lee's innocence or guilt; Goldsmith's performance feeds on this ambiguity.

Laurel Casillo does good work as Lee's Russian wife Marina, who adapts to America perhaps a little too well. Miles G. Jackson is sympathetic as his older brother Robert, although the convincing Texas accent he deploys throughout act one is all but gone by act two. The production, directed by Artistic Director David Saint, is glacially paced, with multiple missed cues and its fair share of ridiculous stage business; the barely two hour running time feels doubled. I felt for Aidem as she was asked to try and sell a disgracefully cheap pratfall as a genuine expression of distress. At the performance I attended, the actors struggled with Michael Anania's turntable set.

There is a compelling story to be told from his material. I'm sure the actors involved could tell it. But that is not what ended up on stage in New Brunswick. I hope you'll forgive me, given the subject matter, but Mama's Boy is dead on arrival.

Mama's Boy continues at George Street Playhouse (9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick) through Sunday, November 6, 2016. Tickets ($17-66) can be purchased online at www.georgestreetplayhouse.org or by calling 732-246-7717.


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