“Mother Play” is a mother of a dramedy

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The cast of Mother Play. Three people sitting on a sofa.
The cast of Mother Play (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger are sitting on the floor around a coffee table.
Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger in Mother Play (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive, 1998) has brought her latest work, Mother Play, to the Second Stage’s Broadway home, the Hayes Theatre. Subtitled “A Play in Five Evictions”, it follows the fortunes of a family — a mother and her son and daughter — living in and around Washington, DC from 1964 to the 21st Century.

We meet the daughter, Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger), in the present day as she reflects on her family history. Because of the many moves they’ve had to make since being deserted by their father, Martha and her brother Carl (Jim Parsons) have become experts in moving quickly and efficiently from one place to another. After a beautifully funny moving-day scene choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, mother Phyllis (Jessica Lange) is revealed. It soon becomes obvious that Carl is the favorite child. However, Martha and Carl adore each other, each being the other’s support and refuge from Phyllis’ mood swings and her plans for their futures. As the family’s fortunes slowly improve, relationships among its members worsen.

Paula Vogel has written a solid piece of drama, dealing as it does with thwarted dreams and unmet expectations, along with the gradual reversal of the roles between parents and children over time.

As good as Vogel’s play, directed by Tony Award-winner Tina Landau, is, and despite the outstanding acting talents of Lange and Keenan-Bolger, the letdown is Jim Parsons’ performance as Carl. Parsons is, for better or worse, identified with Sheldon Cooper, the character he played for 11 years in the hit TV series The Big Bang Theory. Although Parsons is a fine comedic actor, what we see on stage is “gay Sheldon” in voice and prickly personality in serious scenes. I would have liked to have seen more differentiation between the two characters’ behavioral patterns. A firmer directorial hand in shaping Carl should have been used here; its lack keeps this production of Mother Play from being a classic.

On the design side, special mention goes to David Zinn, who came up with an outstanding scenic achievement with this season’s The Notebook, and Jill BC Du Boff, who has come up with costumes that reflect the changes in the characters’ financial statuses and lives.

While I admire the work of Paula Vogel and Tina Landau, and have nothing but admiration for Jessica Lange’s and Celia Keenan-Bolger’s acting abilities, the misconceived performance of Jim Parsons, especially in the more serious scenes in Mother Play, makes this show a near-miss. It’s a solid play, and I would love to see it attempted with a different cast. I give credit to Second Stage for presenting this play. While I can’t recommend it to everyone, fans of Vogel, Lange, and Keenan-Bolger should see this show during its limited engagement.

Mother Play is presented by the Second Stage Theater at the Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street in New York through June 16, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to 2st.com.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.