When Marsha Norman's "'night, Mother" opened on Broadway in 1983, it featured two virtually unknown actresses, Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak, which allowed you to focus on the play. (It won the Pulitzer Prize that year.)
The current production has two stars, Brenda Blethyn and Edie Falco. Both are wonderful actresses, but they do not necessarily help what is in fact a deeply flawed play.
Shortly after "'night, Mother" begins, Jessie Cates informs her mother, Thelma, that she is going to shoot herself in the head in an hour and a half, at 9:30 p.m. We learn that she has selected this time because her brother and sister-in-law, who tend to go to bed early, will still be up and won't have to waste time getting dressed to come over and help her mother cope.
Jessie's decision seems unalterable. One of the play's faults is that there is nothing to counterbalance the negatives in Jessie's life: She is epileptic. She has a lousy ex-husband and an even lousier drug-addicted son.
Her life, devoted to looking after her hapless mother, is clearly joyless. A better play might have given Jessie some reasons not to call it quits.
Since there is no question that she will pull the trigger, the only question is if she will be able to adhere to her timetable. Happily, she does, but the evening seems to last far longer than its supposed 90 minutes.
Part of the problem is that both actresses seem so "together." Blethyn does not seem in any way helpless or dithery. Her inability simply to phone for help when her daughter leaves the room makes no sense.
Similarly, Falco, though she has camouflaged (with the help of costume designer Michael Krass) her natural elegance, does not suggest someone utterly lacking options or hope.
The script stresses how carefully she has planned her "departure," and Falco executes the steps in such a chipper manner it's hard to believe she couldn't just move to a larger town.
Nor do we get any sense of their subtextual feelings. Is Jessie prolonging the moment to torture her mother? Is Thelma so ineffectual at stopping her because she doesn't have any deep feelings for her?
The text doesn't go into these issues, but the acting (and directing, by Michael Mayer) might have fleshed it out.
Each of the women has powerful moments, but the overall feeling is flat and mechanical, an exercise in facile nihilism.
The curtain has been up hardly more than a minute on Marsha Norman's " 'night, Mother,' which opened last night at the Royale Theatre, when a daughter asks her mother, 'Where's Daddy's gun?"
Aha! you think.
And when a few moments later the daughter announces, with casual determination, "I'm going to kill myself, Mama," you realize you were right.
These two people are acted with masterly skill and exquisite finesse by Brenda Blethyn as the cool, calculating Mama and Edie Falco as her equally cool but differently calculating daughter, Jessie.
But with that early revelation of her intentions, the play's action is all over, right then.
There cannot even be any real tension of the will-she/won't-she? variety, because if she doesn't, what on earth could be the point of the play?
When " 'night, Mother" was first produced on Broadway in 1983, it was, I thought, singularly lucky in some of its reviews - and even luckier when it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Yet the play's fatal flaw should be clear enough.
What the playwright needed to do was slowly disclose an Ibsen-like back story, making the obvious engrossing and, more important still, the final act tragically inevitable, rather than the throwaway stuff of everyday journalism.
When, at the end of "Hedda Gabler," Ibsen's Hedda shoots herself, and the odious but shocked Judge Brack whispers, "But people don't do things like that," we have been made to understand by Ibsen that Hedda could and would.
But Norman's Jessie is no Hedda. And the gunshot ending of the play moves us only toward the exit.
Not that Jessie hasn't had a hardscrabble life. She suffers from epilepsy, her beloved father is dead, her brother doesn't care for her, her husband has left her, her son - a serious criminal in development - is a dope addict, and she spends her days babysitting her demanding mother.
It's all decent, detailed material - yet it's somehow made no more interesting than the case history of a figure in a supermarket tabloid.
This is by no means the fault of the actors. Ironically enough -despite the curiously shoddy setting, designed as if on a tight budget by Neil Patel - Michael Mayer's smoothly rhythmic staging is, like the acting, rather better than the 1983 original's.
Falco makes Jessie's one note of wan but chirpy resignation resonate most wonderfully - it's like a concerto played on a one-string fiddle - while Blethyn turns technical cartwheels in the more varyingly textured role of the mother.
There are times when superior acting doesn't save a play, but simply exposes it.
As your grandmother or therapist probably told you, there is something to be said for staying busy in a time of crisis. Playing a pair of women whose shared life is about to be torn asunder, Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn have an ocean of household chores to swim through in the strangely uninvolving new production of Marsha Norman's '''Night, Mother'' at the Royale Theater.
Putting candy in jars, cleaning out the refrigerator, bagging garbage, folding towels, making cocoa: such tasks are sometimes enough even to eclipse the harsh awareness of Thelma Cates (Ms. Blethyn) that her daughter, Jessie (Ms. Falco), has announced that she will be killing herself in a couple of hours.
On the other hand, all that domestic industry only rarely disguises our suspicion that these two first-rate actresses are never quite at home in their roles. Or the uneasy realization that Ms. Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, which opened in revival last night under the direction of Michael Mayer, is looking more artificial than it did two decades ago.
It was Ms. Norman's careful presentation of everyday routine in the shadow of an imminent suicide that so stunned critics and theatergoers in 1983. Today, you can still appreciate the work's ingenious construction. In setting her mother's house in order one last time -- counting out pills and going over grocery lists and laundry instructions -- Jessie is defining the suffocating, sterile existence of the years she has lived there since her marriage ended.
Some reviewers in the 1980's saw in '''Night, Mother'' an indictment of the spiritual emptiness of middle-class American lives glutted with television and junk food. But what lent such disturbing force to the stage production (unlike the fatally stagy film version from 1986, starring Anne Bancroft and Sissy Spacek) was the clash of temperaments embodied by Anne Pitoniak and Kathy Bates. Ms. Pitoniak's Thelma had the fierce, flailing instincts of a woman who clings to life because it's all she knows.
Ms. Bates, by contrast, emanated the chilling conviction and centeredness of someone who has definitively decided to get off the bus, as she puts it. There wasn't much doubt as to the outcome of this contest of wills. I thought of Ms. Bates's performance recently when I saw ''4:48 Psychosis,'' a devastating internal monologue of reasons not to live by the British playwright Sarah Kane. In other words, I was braced to be harrowed all over again by '''Night, Mother.''
So I was surprised to find myself feeling more detached and impatient than anything else. And the principal reason for that seems to be the same reason I was especially looking forward to this revival: Ms. Falco's interpretation of Jessie. Best known as Carmela, the enameled Mafia matriarch of the HBO series ''The Sopranos,'' Ms. Falco has established herself as one of the most lucid yet subtle chameleons of the American stage and screen.
Her performance as a commitment-shy waitress in the 2002 revival of Terrence McNally's ''Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune'' was a model for finding a theater-filling presence in a self-effacing character. (It was also, for the record, another role created by Ms. Bates, and in this case Ms. Falco firmly staked her own claim to the part.)
As Jessie, Ms. Falco is as admirably free as ever of a star's vanity. Wearing a limp mouse-brown wig and speaking in a singsong twang that scrapes the nerves, she makes no bid for the audience's affection or even sympathy. Certainly, you can imagine this plain, middle-aged woman having lived the barren, bruising life she describes.
But -- and this is an overwhelmingly important but -- you are seldom persuaded that Jessie is ready to give up that life. There's a sly spark of intelligence and even malice in Ms. Falco's performance that reminds you that this is indeed the same actress who created Carmela Soprano. You can sense Ms. Falco's Jessie trying to will herself into a sort of zenlike placidity. Yet anger and score-settling satisfaction flicker betrayingly across her stark features as she itemizes the long list of minuses that make up her life: her failures as a wife and mother, her epilepsy, her lack of professional skills, the death of the father who appears to have been the only person she truly loved. Though Jessie says she doesn't blame Thelma, it's hard to avoid the impression that she really does. The play's title starts to sound less like a sad, exhausted farewell than a petulant cry of revenge. And it feels as if it would be more appropriate for the drama to end with the sound of a slamming door than with a gunshot.
Ms. Norman's script is not enriched by this approach. Without the inexorable, gravitational pull of Jessie's will to die, '''Night, Mother'' assumes the pedestrian aspect of yet another family drama of confrontation and revelation. And under Mr. Mayer's laissez-faire direction, it's hard even to believe that these two women are related.
Ms. Blethyn, the British actress who appeared to such fine advantage in (and received an Oscar nomination for) the Mike Leigh film ''Secrets and Lies,'' has the requisite fretful voice and fidgety mannerisms down pat. But it's as if she is doing a technically perfect impersonation in a vacuum. Going through their repetitive cycles of resentment and recrimination against the anonymous backdrop of Neil Patel's generic suburban set, she and Ms. Falco sometimes suggest performances that have been spliced into a single frame from different films.
There could be an intellectual argument made for this interpretation, especially given that Jessie speaks about how people never really know one other. And there are several genuinely haunting moments of silence from both actresses, in which their features register an unfathomable loneliness. But without the sense of an umbilical cord, however frayed, that still binds Jessie and Thelma, the emotional stakes aren't as high as they must be.
This means that all those household chores that Jessie performs stand out in ways they shouldn't, like the tasks assigned to students in acting class to help them sink into the moment. In an ideal production of '''Night, Mother,'' everyday activity should be part of a persuasive, hypnotic spell woven by a woman who, for the first time in her life, knows exactly what she wants. That this version is less than hypnotizing is painfully signaled by your wondering, whenever Jessie leaves the stage, why Thelma does not hide the gun or simply call the police.
It seems just another Saturday night in the nondescript house where Thelma Cates and her grown daughter, Jessie, have lived since Jessie's husband left her. Jessie cleans her mother's reading glasses, organizes her favorite cheap candies in canisters and prepares, as she does every Saturday, to manicure the older woman's nails before disappearing into her room.
But as most everyone knows by now about "'night, Mother," Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of 1983 and movie of 1986, this is no ordinary evening. Early into the comforting ritual, Jesse goes to the attic to find her late father's gun and, soon after; calmly announces, "I'm going to kill myself, Mama." It should surprise no one that, when our allotted 90 minutes with the women are over, Jesse bids her conflicted mother goodnight, opens the waiting door and locks it behind her forever.
We never really bought the case for suicide when the remarkable duo Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak were first making audiences weep over the presumed inevitability of the offstage gunshot. Twenty-one years later, with the very different but equally powerful Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn at the Royale Theatre, we're afraid we are even less caught up in the momentum of the unstoppable act.
There is still much lean, intelligent, clear-eyed writing. Michael Mayer has directed his uncompromising actresses with all the tough emotional elegance the script demands. But there is a mawkishness to the unsentimentality. We feel more manipulated than devastated, more impatient than persuaded.
Of course, it is always a pleasure to watch Falco transform herself into yet another character with no resemblance to the wife of Tony Soprano. Here, she has long, oily, mousy hair, a defeated hunch under her lumpy cardigan and an almost unrecognizable lack of Carmela lilt in her voice.
Falco, last seen during HBO hiatus re-creating the Bates role on Broadway in "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," has such a kind, open quality. Even as she recounts the disappointments of Jessie's life, she seems too vital and competent to snuff out her light without a fight.
Blethyn, a major force on the English stage, is better known in America for unforgettable performances in such smart films as "Secrets and Lies" and "Lovely and Amazing." One can certainly quibble about her Midwestern accent - "cahfee" and "dahg" are hard to take seriously. But she creates a marvelously detailed Thelma, a vaguely disabled, undeniably selfish woman who loves to be waited on - even while convincing herself that her helplessness gives her daughter a sense of purpose.
Neil Patel's set is a depressingly cheerful home of burnt colors and veneer. Michael Krass' costumes help damp down the light under both women's skin. Indeed, Jesse's dead-end life - garnished with epilepsy and a troubled teenage son - may not be a happy one. But even as she says, "I'm just not having a very good time and I don't have any reason to think it'll get anything but worse," a voice in our head is screaming, "Try another job .... Feed the homeless .... Save the Alaskan wilderness."
Despite the appreciative sobbing around the theater, we feel more and more dispassionate about Jesse's passion for ultimate quiet. The world is needier than she is.
Part of loving someone, we're often told, is learning to let go. This is especially true of parental love, ideally the most complete and least selfish kind.
The limits of that theory were tested to scalding effect 21 years ago in Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Night, Mother. The Broadway revival of 'Night (* * * ½ out of four), which opened Sunday at the Royale Theatre, proves that time has not diminished the play's power to provoke and unsettle.
Veteran character actress Brenda Blethyn and The Sopranos' Edie Falco play Thelma Cates and her nearly middle-aged daughter, Jessie, who share a comfortable home and an almost comically tedious existence.
When we meet them, it is Saturday night. And as Jessie, a divorcee, searches for old towels, her mother rattles off various items for a shopping list.
The atmosphere of droll listlessness is shattered when Jessie tells us she also is looking for a gun, and after being pressed by Thelma, tells us why. In the 90 minutes that follow, the two women review - with varying degrees of humor, affection, sorrow and rage - the trajectories of their lives, and Thelma desperately tries to figure out what has driven her grown child to a dire decision.
Norman's mercilessly naturalistic dialogue demands a pair of stringent performances unfettered by vanity.
Under Michael Mayer's vigorous, disciplined direction, both stars deliver the goods, and then some. Falco, who has proved her range with a series of interesting stage and screen roles, plays Jessie as a woman weighed down by so much emotional armor that she can seem numb, or callous. Pacing the stage in a succession of menial chores, she exhibits a manic but somehow contented sense of purposefulness. And the matter-of-fact manner in which she relays her horrific intentions to Thelma is cruelly convincing.
What, we wonder, could have made this woman so insensitive to the person who should be most concerned about her welfare?
The script gives us a few clues, revealing that Thelma isn't entirely the warm, maternal figure that she seems at first blush. But just as Falco doesn't let us forget the pain underlying Jessie's resolve, Blethyn's magnificent portrayal never obscures Thelma's vulnerability. As it becomes plain that Jessie won't be swayed by her mom's protests, Blethyn projects a desperation that's both unbearable and captivating.
Frankly, I don't envy either actress for having to relay this story nightly, twice on matinee days. But selfishly speaking, I'm glad that they're putting themselves through it.