Review: ‘Mother Play’ on Broadway stars Jessica Lange in a playwright’s story of growing up

NEW YORK — Playwright Paula Vogel has written a deeply personal play about life with one’s mother, and her late mom, Phyllis Rita, would surely have been delighted to have her Broadway appearance played by no less than Jessica Lange, an actress fully capable of turning her into a boozy but sympathetic hybrid of Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” and Tennessee Williams’ Amanda Wingfield.

Like Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie,” Phyllis has been abandoned by a man and is mostly disappointed in her children, in this case because they are both growing up gay. As a single mother of tenuous financial stability with little charm for landlords, Phyllis carts around Carl (Jim Parsons) and Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger) from one Washington, D.C.-area apartment to another in “Mother Play,” now at the Hayes Theater, the home of Second Stage.

Fans of Vogel’s dark comedies across the years have met the lovably witty and sophisticated Carl before in “The Baltimore Waltz,” another personal Vogel piece that chronicled his death from AIDS in 1988, devastating his adoring sister. But in this most recent play, Vogel dives deeper into Carl’s impact on the artist as a young person, the way he functioned as a surrogate parent keeping Martha alive even as Phyllis spiraled from one problem to another, some of her own making, some not at all.

“Mother Play,” subtitled “A Play in Five Evictions,” rambles across several decades from 1964 to the present and it’s a measure of the superb acting in director Tina Landau’s production that you easily believe in the middle-aged Keenan-Bolger and Parsons being high-schoolers, just as you do the 74-year-old Lange as a woman in her 30s. The play is closely observed, drawing as it does on the things you tend to remember when you are a kid, such as your mother’s handbag and the treasures and horrors it contains, or the roaches on the fridge door, or the wild mood swings where you live.

I don’t think the “five evictions” setup fully works, especially toward the end, and you never fully grasp all of the relevant personal and economic circumstances of this struggling family, seen through a glass darkly, as it were. But Landau’s direction fills these apartments with vibrant life and the play ultimately comes off as a beautiful tribute to the late-20th century friendships between lesbians and gay men, the latter with their irony, humor and capacity for nurturing so cherished by the former as they made their way through an often unfriendly world. Never for a moment do you feel that everyone here is safe; this is a play about a childhood on the precipice of something a kid cannot fully know. Vogel never implies this is a good thing, but she shows us young characters who thrive nonetheless.

Keenan-Bolger and Parsons are veritable fonts of accessible vulnerability, which Landau expertly contrasts with Lange’s more elusive and stylized persona. It is as if Keenan-Bolger and Parsons have to fight to get into Lange’s play, which is very apropos of what Vogel is writing about here.

Especially when synced with the coming retirement of its producer, Second Stage artistic director Carole Rothman, “Mother Play” has the aura of a valedictorian effort, the completion of a canon by coming home, even a push for a confirmed spot among the greats of this era of American playwriting.

Vogel certainly does not shy from her admiration of Martha, her own self, especially in the final scene when she still visits and cares for a mother with dementia, whom the play has just shown us she has good reason to ignore. Some writers would worry about how that looked, but I suspect Vogel decided that was the truth of it and, well, it’s her mother’s play after all. And who could argue with that?


At the Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., New York;