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March 24, 2014 10:02 pm
Mike Nichols once observed that casting a well-loved actor in a play or movie makes the director’s job easier: you don’t have to spend the first half-hour securing audience interest in the actor’s character. For proof of the remark, look no further than Mothers and Sons, the sometimes absorbing, somewhat unsatisfying new play by Terrence McNally that has arrived on Broadway. Without Tyne Daly as Katharine Gerard, who has come to New York from Dallas to bring her dead son’s diary to his former lover, the character – and the 90-minute, interval-less play – would have struggled to engage us from the first beat.
Daly, best known for playing Lacey in the 1980s television series Cagney & Lacey, doesn’t just have the skilled actor’s ability to make us care about an initially unsympathetic character. She also has an uncanny aptitude for grounding an individual in a complex reality, so that even when the character does something unattractive we can feel why such a choice was made.
Unlike in the 2011 Broadway revival of McNally’s Master Class, in which Daly portrayed Maria Callas, she isn’t cast against type here, and McNally gives Katharine several layers of emotional foundation. She grew up in suburban New York, but in a more rough-and-tumble town than the one she described to the bumptious Texans who surrounded her during married life; she thought the arrival of her only child, Andre, would relieve her unhappy marriage, but after he moved to New York to become an actor, contracted HIV and died in 1994, her unhappiness only increased.
Swathed in a second-hand fur coat and thrust into the Central Park West apartment of Cal, Andre’s former lover, Katharine is painfully confronted with her failures as a mother. A conservative woman, she does not quite approve of the domestic arrangement of Cal and his husband Will, who have a six-year-old son, Bud.
Neither Will nor, to a lesser extent, Cal, is given as much detail as Katharine. So their interpreters – the boyish Bobby Steggert as Will and the handsome Frederick Weller as Cal – must work hard to persuade us that they are a couple, let alone the happy one that McNally intends. Civil equality for gays is a heartening sign of progress, but preaching its virtues is less compelling than dramatising its complexities. Katharine’s unhappiness, paradoxically, provides more satisfaction than the men’s domestic bliss.
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