“Mothers and Sons,” has gone the way of several plays that first came to life on the Bucks County Playhouse stage: Broadway.
Last summer, the revived Bucks County Playhouse – where Broadway insiders once flocked during summer months to try out new ideas – reclaimed some of its former glory. It brought a new play by a major playwright, Terrence McNally, to its world premiere. Now that taut, terrific play, “Mothers and Sons,” has opened on Broadway, nine months later.
It’s essentially the same production that Jed Bernstein, former artistic director of the Playhouse and now the president of Lincoln Center, produced in New Hope, where the Playhouse sits on the Delaware River. Tyne Daly still stars as the mother of a man who died from AIDS 25 years ago. Daly, who delivered a genuine and nuanced portrayal here in June, has discovered even more depth in the character during the ensuing months.
“Mothers and Sons” is the follow-up to a TV play McNally wrote in 1990, before he’d won any of his four Tony Awards for playwriting (“Master Class,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and the books for the musicals “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime”). His teleplay “Andre’s Mother” ran in 1990 on PBS, and involved Katharine, who could not accept her son Andre as a gay man, or his death from AIDS, or his partner named Cal.
In the new “Mothers and Sons,” 25 years later, Katharine has come from her Texas home to Manhattan, and drops in unannounced on Cal – he’s now a married man who, with his husband, has a six-year-old son. Cal and Katharine haven’t seen one another since Andre’s funeral. She ostensibly wants to drop off something of Andre’s that she’d been keeping. Cal is totally unprepared for her appearance.
“Mothers and Sons” neatly covers the sweep of social and legal change over a quarter-century. Cal lives in New York, where his ability to marry another man is law. Being gay does not necessarily carry a life-wrecking stigma. AIDS remains a dreaded danger yet not a sure-fire death sentence.
For Cal and his younger husband, the years since Andre’s death changed their notions of who they can be. For Katharine, those benefits are liabilities. Somehow her son was murdered, somehow the murderers became respectable.
And there you have the tug of warring perspectives that made “Mothers and Sons” a compelling new piece of theater in Bucks County and, with some minor polishing by McNally, make it a knockout also on Broadway. McNally approaches the fragile conversation he creates between these characters like a journalist laying out two complete (and completely different) sides of a story. Katharine and the two men she visits, or maybe intrudes upon, all get to state their cases clearly, no punches pulled. The denoument comes naturally, although a little less so on Broadway, where clichéd lighting and operatic undertones suddenly appear.
Cal is played on Broadway by Frederick Weller, an actor who provides a less pensive character than in Manoel Felciano’s interpretation in Bucks County. But Weller’s character works, and not so differently that it alters the play’s balance. The excellent Bobby Steggert, who has a magnetic stage presence (and a fine set of pipes he displayed earlier this season in the flop musical “Big Fish”) is Cal’s husband, the role he created at Bucks County. The impressive child actor Grayson Taylor repeats his role as the couple’s son.
Sheryl Kaller directs the Broadway version with the same fine-tuned sense of the play’s warps and weaves that she used in Bucks County. There’s much to be said for the old-fashioned process of playwrighting: Get a vision, get it on paper and get it up and breathing – without workshops or panels or any other focus-group input, without 20 backers all having their say, and without the corporate big-money structure that’s come to define process and assume risk on Broadway.
The way McNally wrote “Mothers and Sons” and the way Jed Bernstein produced it is the way major talents put up new plays at Buck County Playhouse last century. There’s a clarity about “Mothers and Sons” that begins with McNally and ends, seemingly unpolluted, on the stage of Broadway’s Golden Theatre. It’s McNally’s 20th work to hit Broadway over 50 years. It’s comforting that the hands-off process that saw those first plays come alive a half century ago can still work today — in the right hands.
“Mothers and Sons” is on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, on 45th Street near Eighth Avenue, New York City.