Corrections or additions?
These reviews by Simon Saltzman were prepared for the December 8,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
When Marsha Norman’s play "’night, Mother" had its Broadway premiere
in 1983, its impact was powerful and unforgettable. Since then the
play has fascinated as many people with its bold and risk taking
theme, and has probably frightened as many people away.
Holding the attention of those willing to commit to the play’s
intensely personal and private subject, Norman’s Pulitzer
Prize-winning play also contains both compassion and large dollops of
irreverently trenchant humor. These elements are captured believably
by its two fine actors, Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn.
In this current revival, the eloquence and honesty of this
dramatization of a woman’s final hours before suicide is not
compromised by two performances that resonate singly and together
quite differently from those given by the actors in the original
Broadway production, Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak.
Ever since her husband walked out on her, Jessie Cates (Falco) has
been living with Thelma (Blethyn), her widowed mother in their simple
home somewhere in rural America. Jessie is an exceedingly plain and
compulsively unmotivated woman with a past history of epileptic fits
that have been carefully played down by her well-meaning mother.
The sheer boredom and redundancy of Jessie’s uneventful daily life,
rather than any abject despondency or self hate, appear to be the
motivation behind her coolly composed statement to her mother, "I’m
going to kill myself."
Thelma, a simple self-centered woman comfortably resigned to the
rituals of TV watching, fixing hot chocolate, and engaging in gossipy
small talk, is startled and stupefied by this announcement from her
otherwise remarkably predictable daughter.
Jessie has been silently "waiting until she felt good enough to
attempt suicide." Thelma’s disbelief eventually turns to fearful
resignation when Jessie calmly presents her with mundane lists of
instructions she has methodically prepared on how to run the washing
machine, and when the milkman and garbage men arrive. These petty
reminders are a prelude to highly charged discourses between mother
and daughter who, in tense counterpoint, reveal concealed truths and
anxieties about their failed marriages and lives.
In "’night, Mother," Norman doesn’t preach, condemn, or even justify
the act of suicide, but merely explores the possibility that an
extremely personal solution may result from rational and honest self
analysis. Thelma’s eventual recognition of Jessie’s decision takes on
perverse humor when she suggests, "Let me call the ambulance. You like
that one driver." Or, when she tries in a last ditch attempt at
rationale: "I don’t know what I’m here for, but I don’t think about
Jessie’s contention that "the only reason to stay would be to keep you
company, and I’m not very good company," is finally acknowledged with
a resigned "no" by her mother who, in spite of everything, must face
tomorrow without guilt.
Michael Mayer has directed with the obligatory sensitivity and an
acute awareness of the need for total honesty on stage. There is never
a false move in Falco’s embodiment of a woman unresponsive to the
affirmations of life. Best known for work on the HBO series "The
Sopranos," Falco received acclaim on Broadway in "Side Man" and
"Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," all very different roles
that attest to her ability to completely transform herself into the
very essence of her character.
Multi-award winning Britisher Blethyn, best known for her
Oscar-nominated role in "Secrets and Lies," does a super job of
varying her desperate attempts to thwart Jessie with outrageously
funny digressions. If she comes across as slightly abrasive, it only
validates her as an unwittingly smothering mother.
"’night, Mother" invites laughter through its emotionally painful
course, and delivers understanding through compassion. This, as it
brings heartfelt insight to one of the most tragic psychological
problems of our time. It appears that Norman’s play has been destined
for the long life that her Jessie could not bear to contemplate.
– Simon Saltzman
to $85). Call 212-239-6200.
We sometimes joke about how a deceased playwright is probably spinning
in his grave when his play is not done well. However, I suspect that
Larry Shue has a right to grin in his grave listening to the reaction
of people obviously pleased by this revival of "The Foreigner," the
play that earned him success just before his tragic death in a plane
crash in 1985. A considerable hit Off-Broadway, "The Foreigner" is no
less than an appropriate, if also predictable, vehicle for Matthew
About a self-described "shatteringly boring" young Britisher who seeks
out a weekend retreat at a fishing lodge (handsomely designed to
include the obligatory stag head by designer Anna Louizos) in Georgia,
"The Foreigner" shamelessly tickles our funny bone as it shamefully
indulges our least demanding dramatic needs.
So painfully insecure and fearful of human confrontation that he
pretends not to understand or speak a word of English, an unhappily
married proofreader at a science fiction magazine suddenly finds that
he is unwittingly in earshot of an inheritance swindle and some dirty
Ku Klux Klan doings. "The Foreigner," although sprinkled with some
peculiarly recognizable stock characters, is basically a star vehicle.
I doubt, however, if it is going to be remembered as Broderick’s best
vehicle. After all, what could possibly top "The Producers?"
Broderick continues to display a boyishly homespun comical facade, but
it is his natural ability as a mime and a mimic that keeps the play on
its farcical track. You’d be hard pressed not to laugh aloud as
Broderick babbles a blue streak in something akin to Pig European, as
he tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood. His graceful and
ingratiating performing style could be said to be an affectionate
homage to Charlie Chaplin.
Director Scott Schwartz does a fine job of bringing the best out of a
great group of farceurs. In one scene – a monkey see/monkey do
breakfast table vocabulary lesson – Charlie (Broderick) and Ellard, a
slightly retarded bricklayer (played by Kevin Cahoon with inspired
deficiencies) reaches a peak of hilarity. Francis Sternhagen as the
compulsively naive owner of the lodge; and Byron Jennings, as
Charlie’s friend and demolition expert, also rise above the occasion.
This is hardly one of the great comedies of the era, but there are
enough golden moments to make this a happy time in the theater.
– Simon Saltzman
111 West 46th Street. Tickets ($61.50 to $71.50), call 212-719-1300.
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