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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Holland Taylor
Photo by Alison Cartwright.

The next time you find yourself wondering what the wealthy are like behind closed doors, remember that those doors are often shut for a reason. With her new play Mother, which just opened at The Wild Project Theater, Lisa Ebersole is ripping down all the barriers between the upper crust and the rest of us and revealing... Well, what do you know, they're just as spoiled and childish as we are! If not more so! And if you find appealing the idea of exploring the myriad ways the rich can behave as if utterly bankrupt of common sense, common manners, and common courtesy, you'll undoubtedly get one enormous chuckle out of this.

Everyone else, however, will be left scratching their heads. Most of the specific substance of Ebersole's play, which has been sleepily directed by Andrew Grosso, is simply baffling. Okay, yes, parents think daughter is reckless and son is gay, children think mom is nutty and dad is senile. But why does anyone think that another family they've known for years is trying to hunt and ransom them? And what's with all the creepy racial and sexual overtones exchanged between them and the black kitchen worker they've known for decades?

Ebersole, who even appears in the play as the daughter, has simply gone too far in going nowhere. In laying out the basic boundaries of the barely there plot, she's forgotten to give the characters vivid lives of their own to contrast the real world they disrupt. Dad (Buck Henry) is a pure-bred bumbler, mom (Holland Taylor) is a mentally fading socialite, and son (Haskell King) is stumbling in making a life and a name separate from his parents'. They've all reunited for New Year's - for what reason, beyond tradition, is never quite clear - at a posh West Virginia resort where they hide, reveal, and hash out their deepest-set problems over the course of a five-star dinner served by a hapless waiter (David Rosenblatt) and the black Chester (Keith Randolph Smith), who long ago accepted them and their eccentricities.

Children and parents will talk about a little bit of this (son to dad: "How come you never talked to me about sex?") and a little bit of that (the daughter's creepy encounter with the "kidnapper" son) before one vanishes for 20 minutes, another traipses off to tour the kitchen, and one falls in the hot sulfur springs. Then they'll sort everything out and repeat the process, in the perfectly calibrated dramatic form that ensures all four will never be seated together around the table until the final scene.

Lisa Ebersole and Buck Henry
Photo by Alison Cartwright.

It's hoary old playmaking, to be sure, but when that final scene arrives - and everyone learns the obligatory important things about themselves and each other - a few bursts of sparks do legitimately fly. Forced to confront issues that wrench them from their self-concerned bubbles, the four characters at last talk and act like a family - and become not only interesting, but even charming. If it's Ebersole's point that even the shakiest family can be made blisteringly real when faced with a truly life-altering challenge, she makes it with aplomb once she makes the decision to.

But all the dithering that leads up to it does not make for an engaging evening. Sacrificing all but seven or so minutes of an 80-minute play to proving this kind of shellacked wackiness, especially when the satire on which those earlier scenes are based is at best marshmallow-sharp, is not particularly compelling writing. It inspires at best lethargic staging from Grosso, who treats every dialogue exchange as chit-chat at a valium high tea. Sandra Goldmark's elegantly tasteless set is a flawless approximation of a hopelessly designed upscale dining room, which is filled by sound designers Daniel Kluger and Brandon Wolcott with an outlandish collection of cheesy show tunes played on a tinkling piano. (I especially joined the dead-serious concertizing of "It's the Hard-Knock Life.")

Similar pleasures aren't to be found in the performers, who almost all look like they'd rather be doing anything else. Henry's one-dimensional doddering pushes his aging character too heavily toward the grave, and Ebersole and King come across as too disinterested to be merely vapid. Taylor only satisfies once her character has revealed the secret glue that holds her together; otherwise, there's no hint of the caustic, acidic humor the actress has proven herself so capable of wielding with precision accuracy.

The most convincing performance comes from Smith. His lines are generally limited to well-meaning condescension, but he speaks them with such unaffected purity that you accept them just as the family does: as the simple truth told by someone with nothing to gain by lying. It's a quaint, old-fashioned idea that existence's bedrock truths are understood and espoused by everyone but the rich, but it plays out in Mother because it has to - otherwise, there's just not enough of it to pass around the table.

Through August 1
The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, between Avenues A & B
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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