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Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles?

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Brenda Pressley
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Your reaction to the new play Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? will likely depend more on your affection for the question than on your affection for the playwrights. Though it was written by Adrienne Kennedy and her son Adam P. Kennedy, you should not expect an evening that will engage or challenge as their previous works have.

You must instead be open to simpler charms, as well as simpler messages that ring only faintly with the resounding depth of those found in plays like the pair's Sleep Deprivation Chamber or Adrienne's groundbreaking Funnyhouse of a Negro. This play touches on Adrienne's common theme of individuality under attack, but seldom moves from lightweight introduction into the meaty narrative her other, more substantial plays embrace.

It must be noted that this production, which has been directed by Peter DuBois, feels more like a first step than the conclusion of a journey. It's the inaugural show in The Public Theater's new Public Lab series, which gives fresh-from-the-printer plays serious but minimal mountings with the intention of helping their writers better chart their future. Because the proceedings suggest fluidity, with actors Brenda Pressley and William Demeritt stationed behind music stands and reading from scripts, it's possible that the work you see might not be exactly what I saw.

But I doubt there will be much departure from the current format of a misty-eyed memoir. Pressley assumes the role of Adrienne in the wake of her divorce in the mid 1960s, when she and Adam moved from New York to London for three years. Though Adrienne had found some success with Funnyhouse, she was far from a household name, though that didn't stop her from taking up luxury housing and lounging with luxurious company like Kenneth Tynan, Laurence Olivier, and, oh yes, John, Paul, and Ringo.

She met them all after divulging her interest in dramatizing John Lennon's nonsense books, a project that would put her on the road to fame but take an unfortunate detour through disappointment instead. If Adrienne's thrill at meeting them is defused somewhat by the treatment she receives at their hands, she also imparts the suggestion that the experience played a major role in her maturation as an artist and businesswoman.

The suggestion, however, is the most that can be found, as the play roots itself firmly in the 1960s and allows little of the subsequent decades to intrude on this story's purity. While this allows for effortless access into Adrienne's memory, which has been painted with a loving faithfulness that makes London into newly explored territory, it does nothing to enhance the structure of the show itself, of which an unseen Adam (Demeritt) firing questions at his mother from the wings and guiding her recollection is an inextricable part.

Because the two performers share the stage only at the curtain call, and because the story only intermittently allows them to share the drama, there is little depth and little bite to the interplay between mother and son. That dulls the show into little more than a dissolution of Adrienne's innocence peppered with liberal doses of name-dropping (Sean Connery and Anjelica Huston are among the luminaries who appear). And at 65 minutes, it's a shade overlong if you don't especially care how entertainment titans co-opted an American's naïvety and writing for their own purposes.

That said, there's still pleasure to be found in the writing, which is impressively detailed and echoes with the same poetry of the prosaic that defines Adrienne's best works. Pressley's tendency to turn a page and explode with wonder at what she finds waiting for her helps create images far more vivid than those occasionally projected across the backdrop by set designer Alexander Dodge. Adrienne and Pressley are at their best when they're allowed room to elevate everyday moments to extraordinary importance.

Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often enough in Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? - Adrienne's intricate facility with language is perfect for ornamenting the story, but is not sufficient enough to be the story itself. For that, we need to know who Adrienne and Adam are, and why their relationship and their discussion of the past merits this play. Those are questions that must be answered before the one laid out in the title, if we're truly to care how Adrienne met Lennon, Olivier, Tynan, or anyone else.

Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles?
Through February 23
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online: Public Theater

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