May 30, 2024


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Review: Jessica Lange stars in Paula Vogel's Mother Play

Review: Jessica Lange stars in Paula Vogel's Mother Play

The characters are probably over 40 years old in the play's 105 minutes. Another actress like Phyllis might have done more to convey the young ravages of time, but Lange instead focuses on her ever-present ferocity and charm. She is strongly supported by Keenan Bolger, who imbues Martha, a playwright like Vogel, with goodness and a gift for straight talk, and by Parsons, a born clown who is savvy enough to show the pain behind the nonsense.

Longtime collaborator and director Tina Landau embraces this nonsense, almost to a fault. During a change of scenery, cockroaches never stray out of sight. Instead they dance to a jazzy version of “La Cucaracha.” There's more dancing, when Lange and Parsons burn, baby, in a duet to the tune of “Disco Inferno.”

Does this seem too silly for a play about death and alienation? probably. But absurdity has always been a hallmark of Vogel's work and, at least for me, was sometimes a source of frustration. When I read her early plays, I thought, Can't you be serious? But Vogel, who loves a dirty joke, knows that laughter is a way to take things seriously. Sometimes the best way.

Compared to “The Baltimore Waltz,” its obvious companion piece, “Mother Play” is a quieter, softer, less crashing offering. Vogel's stab wounds have largely healed, and the closing mood is one of compassion and liberation. When it comes to Phyllis, Martha knows what the playwright knows: that you can love someone without forgiving them, and that love is better than the alternatives.

Thirty years or so ago, Vogel he told a reporter“I love theater that makes me feel like it's healing.” That's what Mother Play is, a balm that comes in cardboard boxes and packing tape. It honors the dead by bringing them back to life and nurtures the living by providing a place for the daughter's love and anger to grow. Martha's box is not Pandora's box. It's just another way to organize life.

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Mother play
Through June 16 at the Helen Hayes Theater, Manhattan; Show duration: 1 hour and 45 minutes.