Terrence McNally's new play opens with a woman of a certain age wearing a lush, black fur coat. It's a provocatively politically incorrect garment -- and a giveaway that what will come out of her mouth will be, too.
Of gay couples, she says: "After all these years, it still sickens me." Of her son being born gay: "Everything is a choice." On the concept of gays able to marry: "How easily you say that word, husband." At least she vaguely knows how offensive she is. Exasperated, she confesses: "Everything I say is inappropriate."
The woman in "Mothers and Sons" is Katharine Gerard, and she has come unannounced on a cold winter's day to the Central Park West apartment of her son's former lover. He died of AIDS almost 20 years ago, and she has a lot of unresolved feelings -- about him, her and the world in general.
But, like the coat, be careful about dismissing her or making too many assumptions, especially when she's being portrayed by Tyne Daly, an actress who is particularly good at playing blustery battle-axes with soft interiors. Daly, the former star of the TV show "Cagney & Lacey" and later winner of a Tony for "Gypsy," is simply wonderful here, a remote and chilly guest who clings to old ideas even as she knows they are out of date and secretly pines for love.
The gentle and moving "Mothers and Sons" opened Monday at the Golden Theatre, where a celebrated revival of the searing AIDS drama "The Normal Heart" was staged in 2011. As a sign of how much has changed, McNally's play is being billed as the first time a legally married gay couple has been portrayed on Broadway.
McNally's play touches on those terrible years when AIDS was a death sentence. In the new work, Gerard's son, Andre, died of the disease but his lover, Cal Porter, did not. Porter, played with real emotion and care by Frederick Weller, mourned alone for many years and then found someone new, marrying and having a child, now 6.
Cal's husband, a nicely fussy and prickly Bobby Steggert, is naturally none too pleased to come home and find the mother of his husband's previous great love in their living room. It doesn't help that she's hostile: Her son is dead and she's upset that everyone has moved on.
McNally wonderfully has the two sides passive-aggressively battle over language -- "passed" versus "dead," ''house" versus "apartment" and "comfort" versus "love" are some of the skirmishes. Says Gerard: "I dislike imprecision." After a slight from her, Cal's husband replies: "I like precision, too."
The 90-minute play moves quickly, and although some of the most angry exchanges seem to erupt from nowhere, the playwright beautifully shows how close to the surface long-suppressed emotions and slights can fester.
The ending is somewhat ambiguous as it winds down -- hopeful without being maudlin. It's then that the boy, played well by Grayson Taylor, pipes up and reveals that he might be the most honest one of the bunch. This innocent offers both sides a chance to disarm and stop looking backward, even if that fur coat is still on.
In the opening moments of “Mothers and Sons,” Cal and Katharine stare out a window of his comfortably lived-in Central Park West apartment.
It’s the only instance these two people will share the same view — on anything — in veteran Tony winner Terrence McNally’s sincere but frustrating drama about family and fear.
The 100-minute one-act revisits characters that McNally (“Master Class,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!”) introduced in “Andre’s Mother,” a four-page 1988 play he expanded into an hourlong TV movie two years later.
This story, set today, traces the awkward, sometimes hostile reunion between Katharine (Tyne Daly), a recent widow who lost her son, Andre, to AIDS, and Cal (Frederick Weller) the lover he left behind 20 years before.
Cal is now married to Will (Bobby Steggert), a househusband and wannabe writer 15 years his junior. The men have a 6-year-old son, Bud (Grayson Taylor).
It’s a different world. But Katharine has grown bitter and sickened by the gay lifestyle — and rocked by the fact that Cal, her only living connection to Andre, has moved on.
There’s grist for a provocative and touching drama as a mom takes stock of the life her son might have had. But the script doesn’t go there.
Instead it careens from expositional jibber-jabber (West Siders versus East Siders) to pithy one-liners (Cal relates how he struggled with calling Will his “hu—hu—hu—sband”) to preachy asides (Will waxes philosophical about AIDS becoming a “footnote” as life goes on). And there are talking points — gay marriage, survivor guilt, homophobia and fear.
Fear is the most interesting topic, considering Andre’s fear of coming out, Will’s fear that Cal loves him differently than he did Andre, and Cal’s fears about forgetting his first love.
Director Sheryl Kaller and her talented cast can’t turn these topics into cohesive drama. Weller, who’s a bit mannered, and Steggert, who’s effusive, manage to hold their own. Taylor, at times hard to understand, has been directed to be irritatingly adorable.
The estimable Daly, who’s stern and stately, is eventually undone by her character. When say-anything little Bud mentions the AIDS quilt, Katharine responds: “The quilt?”
A mom who lost her only child to HIV has never heard of the AIDS quilt — a memorial of international significance?
Unless she’s Rip Van Winkle, there is no context — religious or social — for her ignorance and denial. That is the moment when “Mothers and Sons” dies. Not even the sweetly optimistic final tableau can resurrect it.
A clunker of a Broadway show, “Mothers and Sons” asks us to endure the vacuous chit-chat of deeply unpleasant people. The worst part is, there isn’t even a good reason for their chit-chatting in the first place.
Fortunately, one of them is played by Tyne Daly, who gives the character of Katharine Gerard — the embittered mother of a dead gay son — the complexity and dignity playwright Terrence McNally refuses her.
Looking like a textbook dowager in her fur coat, Katharine shows up unannounced at the Upper West Side apartment of Cal Porter (Frederick Weller), the boyfriend of her son Andre, who died of AIDS nearly 20 years earlier. (The show is a sequel to McNally’s 1990 PBS teleplay “Andre’s Mother,” set at Andre’s memorial service.)
Katharine’s dropped by because … well, that’s unclear. Her distaste for Cal in particular and homosexuality in general hasn’t softened with the years, and she’s still in denial about so many things. “Andre wasn’t gay when he came to New York,” she informs Cal. “He came to New York to be an actor.”
If you say so, lady.
By all rights Cal should come to his senses and go, “Katharine, it hasn’t been a pleasure,” before showing her the door. But no. She stays on and on and on, despite having little to say, and he’s too nice — Cal is Mr. Perfect Yuppie — to do anything about it.
Things get worse when Cal’s smug, judgmental husband, Will (Bobby Steggert), turns up with their 6-year-old son, Bud (Grayson Taylor), a grating sitcom moppet.
Nothing makes sense here, not even McNally’s condescension toward Katharine. Cal uses the word “eskimo” because he thinks she won’t know what an Inuit is, but later he assumes she’ll get his reference to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir — and she does. So is she a hick or not?
Under Sheryl Kaller’s stilted direction, all three adults look uncomfortable, though at least Daly’s character is meant to be that way. The actress suggests a world of pain, grief and anger behind the stoic, matronly facade, and she lands her zingers with ease. A lot more sympathetic onstage than on the page, Katharine ends up owning the show. Andre would have been proud.
The curtain rises on two people frozen in what feels like a thaw-proof silence. Their eyes are fixed straight ahead, and the possibility of even their gazes’ intersecting seems remote; forget about a meeting of minds. With these figures implacably embodied by Tyne Daly and Frederick Weller in Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,” any dialogue that might occur seems destined to be nasty, brutish and short.
Yet a conversation is going to happen, as surely as Gary Cooper faced down his enemies in “High Noon.” It has to. These people have so very, very much to say. More to the point, so does Mr. McNally, a probing and enduring dramatist who has set out to take the pulse of a gay American subculture several decades after the plague that altered its form and content forever.
“Mothers and Sons,” which opened on Monday night at the John Golden Theater in an impeccably acted production directed by Sheryl Kaller, is wrapped in a sense of urgency that paradoxically saps it as a drama. It wears its significance defiantly and a bit stiffly, rather as Ms. Daly’s character, a Dallas matron visiting Manhattan, wears the big, blocky fur coat in which we first see her.
Though “Mothers and Sons” has only four characters, and covers only 90 minutes in their lives, Mr. McNally has drawn an ambitiously wide-ranging map. Using as his starting point an uncomfortable reunion between an eternally angry mother and the former lover of her dead son, Mr. McNally charts the gains and losses, victories and defeats for gay men — or, specifically, middle-class gay men in Manhattan — in the years since AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s.
The play’s structure is that of an old-fashioned drawing room drama of confrontation, in which civilized people say the unsayable. (Its handsomely appointed setting, a Central Park West apartment conjured by John Lee Beatty, might almost have come from the era of S. N. Behrman.) But make no mistake. Mr. McNally intends this also to be a memorial play of large scope.
As one character says, of the time when to be told you had AIDS was effectively a death sentence: “First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote. ... It’s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away.”
That Mr. McNally is doing his best to forestall the anesthetizing process is admirable and suitable. Few theater artists would seem better qualified for the task. Mr. McNally was one of the first playwrights to bring the subject of AIDS into the mainstream, in light-handed but heavy-hearted works that include “The Lisbon Traviata” (1989), “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” (1991) and “Love! Valour! Compassion!”(1995).
There was also a wrenching sketch from 1988, “Andre’s Mother,” which introduced the two adversarial people who begin “Mothers and Sons.” That’s Katharine Gerard (Ms. Daly) and Cal Porter (Mr. Weller), who met at the memorial service for Andre Gerard — son of Katharine, lover to Cal — depicted in the earlier play. (“Andre’s Mother” was expanded into a 1990 television play, starring Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas.)
Mr. McNally, with forgivable license, has changed the date of that service to 1994. It is now a symmetrical two decades since Katharine and Cal’s first encounter, and they have not spoken since. The newly widowed Katharine, en route from Dallas to Europe, has sought out Cal in the apartment he shares with his husband, Will Ogden (Bobby Steggert), and their adored 6-year-old son, Bud Ogden-Porter (a pert Grayson Taylor).
That’s right, Cal has a husband and son, something that would have been unthinkable two decades earlier. Katharine — for whom time stopped when Andre died, if not before — has trouble wrapping her mind around such changes. So, in a way, does Cal. The gap between then and now looms large in “Mothers and Sons,” though it’s not as vast as the gap between Cal and Katharine.
“Mothers and Sons” is propelled by people peering into and shouting over that chasm. It is, in essence, a debate play with fraught emotional underpinnings, and it doesn’t avoid the stasis of that genre. It also tends to sabotage its potential to move us by making the debate, rather than psychological credibility, its first priority.
As Katharine and Cal (and later, Will) exhume Andre’s life and its legacy, they say the sort of wounding things that normally lead to the stormy exits and slammed doors that end conversations for good. Yet here they shift from bruising outbursts to facile banter without even a cooling-down period.
The performers are skilled enough that we don’t hear the sound of gears stripping. But they can’t entirely justify their emotional U-turns, nor keep at bay our sense that we are following a menu of subjects that must be covered before the evening’s end.
Within those limitations, the cast creates some beautifully observed moments. You feel that you understand the resentment as well as the affection that binds Cal and Will through their body language alone. Mr. Weller’s Cal has a shucked, eager-to-please quality that is nicely balanced by the physical confidence of Mr. Steggert’s Will (who is 15 years Cal’s junior), and the contrast speaks volumes about the different eras in which they came of age as gay men.
Ms. Daly, last seen on Broadway in a triumph of skill over unlikely casting as Maria Callas in Mr. McNally’s “Master Class,” again proves herself one of our most formidable stage actresses. I wish this play hadn’t saddled Katharine with so much self-flagellating self-revelation. Ms. Daly rides her overtly confessional speeches like a veteran jockey on a tearaway horse.
She and the play are at their strongest, though, not in what is spoken, however articulately, but in tacitly suggesting a sorrow beyond words that is always waiting to resurface. Images of the dead Andre — whether materializing out of memory or assuming the palpable form of photographs — keep ambushing Katharine. The startled pain that contorts Ms. Daly’s face at those moments is in itself a resonant elegy for a ravaged generation.
Cal: "I didn't give him AIDS. I didn't make him gay."
Katharine: "Someone did."
Here we have the nuclear tug-of-war still tugging between the loved ones of Andre, 29, a promising actor who died of AIDS in 1989.
Cal (Frederick Weller) was his partner who nursed him and who mourned for eight years before being able to love another. Katharine (Tyne Daly) is Andre's homophobic mother, who rejected her beloved gay son, blamed Cal and only came from Dallas to New York for the memorial service in Central Park -- one of so many in the final nightmare decades of New York in the 20th century.
Terrence McNally, who has astutely chronicled the thrills, the taboos and the tragedies of gay life since the mid-'60s, feels a bit too much like a playwright on a mission this time. In "Mothers and Sons" -- directed with care by Sheryl Kaller -- Cal worries that the horror of AIDS and life before gay marriage will fade into a footnote for his young husband (Bobby Steggert) and their 7-year-old son (Grayson Taylor).
This is a "never forget" message that McNally surrounds with a sentimental, four-generation family story with plenty of his sharp observations and wit, but not enough to disguise the mechanics and contrivances that drive his worthy intentions.
Katharine -- a character McNally wrote for Daly -- arrives without warning at Cal's enviable prewar Upper West Side apartment facing Central Park. (John Lee Beatty designed the perfectly homey details.) It is 25 years since Katharine last saw Cal -- and, significantly, refused to hug him at the memorial service. Ostensibly, she has come from Dallas to give him Andre's diary.
But why did she come? We never really know. We do know that the cold, bigoted character benefits much from Daly's combination of toughness and implicit warmth. Would anyone this alienated from her own time also be a longtime subscriber to the New Yorker magazine? Could anyone smart enough to acknowledge she wanted a son to "let me love him the way I had never been loved" be so blind to ways that others love?
Weller, saddled with the heaviest lectures, also finds the lightness in a man who refuses to feel guilty about his happy life. But could anyone pull off a line suggesting that AIDS might not have happened if gays felt they "deserved the dignity of marriage?" And skeptics may doubt that a child, even a child this bright, can heal the world.
It has been more than 25 years since Terrence McNally introduced us to Katharine Gerard, the title character of his short play Andre's Mother. She was, at first, more of a symbol than a person; in the original piece, later adapted for a TV film, Katharine stood silently at the funeral of her gay son, an AIDS victim, while Andre's lover, Cal, raged at her lack of compassion — at the world's lack of compassion — for the man he had loved.
McNally's new play, Mothers and Sons (* * * out of four stars), which opened Monday at Broadway's Golden Theatre, picks up 20 years later. A lot has changed for Cal, now married to another man, with whom he is raising a young son. Katharine, not so much, it would seem.
Turning up at the spacious apartment overlooking Central Park that Cal, a money manager, shares with his husband, Will, a writer, and Bud, their 6-year-old, Andre's mom still doesn't understand why her son, an aspiring actor who left Dallas at 18, died. "Andre wasn't gay when he came to New York," she tells Cal, whom she still resents for moving on with his life — despite his assurances he was alone for eight years before meeting Will.
It's not exactly clear why Katharine has chosen this afternoon to arrive, unannounced, and begin airing her beefs — or, for that matter, why Cal receives her so graciously and with such patience first, even after Will returns from the park with Bud and makes it plain, to Cal, that he doesn't want Katharine around.
Nor is it entirely credible that by the time McNally's 90-minute play has run its course, Katharine has shared doubts and confidences with the men she believes betrayed and replaced her dead son, and they with her. The revelations can, not surprisingly, seem contrived to shed light on the characters' motives and conflicts.
For those who can look past such weaknesses, though, Mothers emerges as one of the more engaging and uplifting new plays of the season. It doesn't hurt, certainly, that McNally and director Sheryl Kaller have for their leading lady the irreplaceable Tyne Daly, who makes Katharine's quirks and contradictions so vivid that you'll find yourself at once offended by her and richly entertained.
McNally also affords Katharine the empathy that she herself withholds, so that we're always conscious of her underlying humanity. Her exchanges with Grayson Taylor's wide-eyed Bud — who, of course, bonds with Katharine instantly, both charming and further unsettling the adults — are genuinely disarming, however calculated.
Frederick Weller makes Cal convincing in both his cultivated restraint and the flashes of long-festering anger that seep into his conversation with Katharine. Bobby Steggert's Will, a generation younger than Cal, is more emotionally raw, so that his indignation flares more readily — particularly when the subject turns to the impact AIDS had on Cal's peers, a prominent issue here.
"People don't change," Katharine tells Cal at one point, to which he responds, "People have to want to change." The latter is a simple, rather obvious point, but with Mothers and Sons, McNally has milked some fresh encouragement from it.
Terrence McNally tries to cover a lot of territory in “Mothers and Sons”: the relationships between mothers and their gay sons; the satisfactions of gay marriage; the dark, enduring legacy of AIDS; and the generation gap within the gay community. Lucky for this high-profile scribe, he has sensitive interpreters of these themes in thesps Frederick Weller and the ever-astonishing Tyne Daly. But the ideas are so diffuse and the dramatic structure so disjointed, there’s no cohesion to the material and no point to the plot.
The absurdly idealized marriage between Cal Porter (Frederick Weller) and Will Ogden (Bobby Steggert) hardly establishes a credible baseline for the play. Life is positively blissful in the casually classy Upper West Side apartment (on Central Park West! On a high floor! With a view!) designed in envy-making detail by John Lee Beatty. Cal makes big bucks doing vague things with other people’s money. The considerably younger (and insufferable) Will is a fanatical homebody who devotes himself to being the perfect helpmeet to Cal and the perfect daddy to impossibly cute little Bud Ogden-Porter (Grayson Taylor). Don’t you just hate them already?
Cal is actually much too nice a guy — and Weller much too personable an actor — to make us begrudge him his hard-won bliss. He and Will have been together for 11 idyllic years, but before that, Cal spent eight years in mourning for his previous love, Andre Gerard, who died of AIDS at the age of 29. His consideration for his conceited husband and their annoyingly adorable child wins Cal more gold stars for comportment.
But it’s the kindness and respect that he extends to Andre’s monstrous mother — an imposing but not very savvy Dallas matron who is at this very moment standing in his living room in full battle gear (a smart wool dress and scrumptious mink coat supplied by costumer Jess Goldstein) and hurling daggers of contempt at him — that earns Cal his heavenly crown. The action of the play, such as it is, consists of the bluntly outspoken Katharine Gerard (Tyne Daly) lobbing nasty comments and rude questions at her late son’s lover, and Cal deflecting her hostility by gently explaining the truths about his life with Andre. But there’s no compelling reason for Katharine to suddenly turn up unannounced in Cal’s parlor after 20 years, and no dramatic consequences hanging on their meeting. So the play really hangs on our engagement with these two characters and our interest in their concerns. (Not to mention our curiosity about why on earth she doesn’t just leave once she’s thrown all her knives.)
If you take Katharine and her homophobic comments at face value, she’s a gay man’s grotesque caricature of the cruel mother who doesn’t love or understand him. Having cut Andre completely out of her life since he came out, Katharine has finally come around to asking all the questions — and verbalizing all the heaving emotions — she couldn’t bring herself to put to her son when he was alive. In venting her anger at Cal, she’s clearly determined to blame someone for “making” Andre gay, “giving” him AIDS, and effectually murdering this “perfectly beautiful young man.”
But here’s Daly, shrugging off that distorted image and restoring the woman’s humanity with a nuanced perf. The thesp doesn’t shrink from Katharine’s cruelty; indeed, she speaks the unkind words exactly as written. But with her uncanny ability to convey a whole range of emotions in a single line, she lets us see the pain and sorrow concealed by malice. Weller is no less skilled at navigating his character’s inner landscape. Speaking always from his quiet place, Cal counters Katharine by listening to her vitriol, but responding to the grief behind it.
Helmer Sheryl Kaller wisely lets these compatible thesps work their way around the holes in the text and the gaps in the action. But in the end, no one can come to the aid of a play that doesn’t … quite … exist.