Yesterday was a momentous day of theatergoing in a number of ways. We spent the afternoon seeing a brilliant musical, IF/THEN, and after a delicious meal at Turkish Cuisine, saw an absorbing old-fashioned drama with a star turn by one of our greatest actresses, Tyne Daly. I don't use the term old-fashioned to denigrate MOTHERS AND SONS. It is shaped in the tradition of the best plays of the last century as it speaks to recent issues (the history of gay men over the past generation) and the timeless theme of how mothers can hold the impossible hope that their children can save them from their own unhappiness. One of the ways in which yesterday's double feature of IF/THEN and MOTHERS AND SONS was momentous was that two packed Broadway houses watched works that dealt with same-sex love and relationships as commonplace. There was none of the gasping and tittering when two men or women kissed that there would have been a generation ago. We are accepted now on Broadway, even on television, though there are still some ghastly negative stereotypes like Eric Stonestreet's insufferable camping on MODERN FAMILY. The civilized world has come a long way in my lifetime.
That advancement in acceptance of gay people in one theme of MOTHERS AND SONS. Terrence McNally has spent much of his career chronicling the experience of gay men from the denizens of a bathhouse in THE RINK, to the sad opera queens of THE LISBON TRAVIATA, to the men trying to find love in the age of AIDS in LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! to chronicles of gay life like SOME MEN. MOTHERS AND SONS gives us a contemporary gay family. Cal (Frederick Weller), now in his late 40s, has lived through a period when men had to hide their relationships and had difficulty overcoming the shame they learned at home. He also survived the age of AIDS, unlike his first love and partner of six years, Andre. Now Cal is a successful money manager who lives in a posh apartment on the West side of Central Park with his cute younger husband Will (Bobby Steggert), and their son Bud (Grayson Taylor). Will is a writer whose stories have been published in THE NEW YORKER. He's young enough to assume that gay men can live any way they choose. Will is also a devoted father. This is as ideal a family as one can find.
When the curtain goes up we see Cal standing silently with Katherine (Tyne Daly), the mother of his former lover, Andre, who died of AIDS twenty years ago. MOTHERS AND SONS is a sequel to McNally's short play, ANDRE's MOTHER, written during the AIDS crisis. The play took place on the day of Andre's memorial service in Central Park and was a testy dialogue between Cal and Katherine. When this play begins, Cal has not heard from Katherine since the memorial service. She has dropped in ostensibly to return Andre's diary, which Cal had sent her twenty years before. Katherine's husband recently died and she is on her way to Europe. However, Katherine herself is not sure what she wants from this visit. Katherine is a woman filled with anger, not only at the death of her son, but at the fact that Andre did not save her from her unhappiness. Katherine wants revenge for her unhappy, unfulfilled life. She's still looking for a cause for her son's homosexuality -- someone must have turned him gay -- and for revenge for whoever gave him AIDS. Katherine is not about to appreciate that Cal, who took care of Andre during his horrible illness even though Andre put him in danger, was also grief stricken. In essence, Katherine wants revenge for her life. Of course, she is angry at the loving family she is visiting. How dare they live this ideal life when her son is dead and she is unhappy. Cal and Will are polite and forbearing, but eventually stand up for their right to live as they choose. Their son wonders if Katherine is the grandmother he is missing.
Katherine is a monster, but she is a woman we come to sympathize with. Her unhappiness is greatly from choices she has made -- to enter knowingly into a loveless marriage and to expect too much from her son, then reject him when he didn't make her the center of his life and when she discovered that he was gay. She wants to punish someone but ultimately is punishing herself. Tyne Daly, who was magnificent as that monster mother, Madame Rose, in a revival of GYPSY a quarter-century ago, is both fierce and vulnerable in this fine play. She doesn't like being in this home, but she can't bring herself to leave. She is angry at the loving family she sees, but on some level she needs to connect to it. This is one of the great acting performances I have seen in my long lifetime. Frederick Weller provides a nice contrast to Daly. Tall and lanky next to her solidity; charming next to her spikeyness, his Cal resists Katherine but also needs to connect to her. Bobby Steggert's Will is affable, but it's clear that he's a tough cookie who will not allow Katherine to upset his family. These two fine actors match Daly's bravura performance. And little Grayson Taylor is a pro as eight year old Bud, a kid full of questions. Sheryl Kaller has allowed her actors to do their best work. Everything looks natural in Will and Cal's home -- except Katherine in her bright red dress, perfect for her personality.
I was delighted to see the full house for MOTHERS AND SONS. It deserves to be seen. Who would want to miss an excellent play brilliantly acted?
MOTHERS AND SONS. Golden Theatre. March 26, 2014.