PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Mothers and Sons — Time & Tyne & Terrence at 20
By Harry Haun
Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally's latest work, Mothers and Sons, opened on Broadway March 24. Playbill.com was there.
"Are you receiving?" I asked Terrence McNally, who stood at the entrance of the John Golden Theater March 24. It sure seemed like it from the long curl of celebs that had queued up behind me and trailed off into the distance, all anxious to shake the hand of the man who had given them four Tony-winning works to date — one in that very theatre, Master Class, with a masterful, Tony-winning Zoe Caldwell playing Maria Callas. Caldwell and two other McNally Callases were in attendance: Elizabeth Ashley in the audience, and Tyne Daly onstage, starring in the evening's presentation, Mothers and Sons, McNally's 20th and latest for Broadway.
"I just love this theatre," the playwright confessed. "I would sit up in the balcony and enjoy the play every bit as much. It is a true Broadway house. When I was at Columbia, I saw every play from the last row. Every theatre had a last row that was $2.90. It was standard — from My Fair Lady to the most intimate play. We're doing a $30 student rush on this, and that's a big difference from $2.90 — a 1,000% inflation."
McNally's husband/lead producer, Tom Kirdahy, basically threw him a play and a party, then cast the audience with a theatre full of their nearest 'n' dearest. At the end of the evening, he even wheeled out a massive cake to cap the celebratory mood.
McNally, beaming ear to ear with that wild Irish smile of his, received all comers with open-hearted affection — lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty from his Ragtime Tony team and his current collaborators on Susan Stroman's Little Dancer; The Dancer of the McNally-scripted Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, a former Spider Woman from his Tony-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman; Joe Mantello, who directed his Tony-winning Love! Valour! Compassion!; actor Micah Slock and director Jack Cummings III from the most recent of McNally's many Off-Broadway plays, And Away We Go, at the Pearl; and Walter Bobbie, who helmed McNally's second most-recent Off-Broadway opus, Golden Age, at Manhattan Theatre Club.
The press line was as giddy as it was glittery. Nathan Lane, who has chalked up a couple of classic McNally eccentrics (the Callas-crazed Mendy in The Lisbon Traviata and the showtune-warped Buzz of Love! Valour! Compassion!), was his eminently quotable self, ignoring the bland questions of the press and cracking wise instead: "You're asking about my first time with Terrence?" he rattled one reporter. To another peering out over a toboggan, he caustically quipped, "You know, you really should dress up for these things." And he waved away all questions about the shocker fatality on his television series, "The Good Wife," with "I dunno, I understand somebody died." (He writes his own stuff — on the spot, it would seem.)
The Lone State contingent representing McNally's home state included Christopher J. Hanke (who has replaced another Texan, Michael Urie, in the Barrow Street Theatre hit, Buyer and Cellar), columnist Liz Smith and El Paso's own F. Murray Abraham (you thought Beirut, right? Now, he's British in The Threepenny Opera).
Without even trying to be, it was the most star-stacked opening of the season. Bernadette Peters came with Victor Garber, and Marsha Mason with director Jack O'Brien. (These last two will be directing shortly — Mason's doing Chapter Two at the George Street Playhouse and O'Brien's doing Much Ado About Nothing this summer in the park.) Michael Shannon, growing a beard to play The Killer at Theatre for the New City in Brooklyn this summer, escorted his wife and Grace co-star Kate Arrington, and John Cariani showed with Donna Lynne Champlin, who co-starred in his Almost, Maine.
Arriving in one cluster of five Tonys: Donna Murphy, Bill Irwin and Stephen Spinella. (The latter will join Estelle Parsons soon farther up 45th in The Velocity of Autumn.) Then there were Marilu Henner and sons, Diane Von Furstenberg in shades, Christopher Sieber (bouncing from Pippin to Matilda The Musical next month), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, The Junket's Mike Albo, TV staples Doris Roberts, S. Epatha Merkerson, Eric Bogosian, The Most Deserving Veanne Cox and Cinderella's mean-spirited stepmother, Fran Drescher.
All sat in rapt attention for 90 minutes as Daly and Frederick Weller locked horns over the 20-year-old death of her son/his lover. Another generation was also heard from: His husband (Bobby Steggert) and their six-year-old son (Grayson Taylor), who is the only one to mention the elephant in the room: AIDS.
At the curtain call, a standing ovation was had by all, and the cast brought out McNally and the show's director, Next Fall's Sheryl Kaller. He thanked the audience for giving him the reception he had hoped for 50 years ago when he made his Broadway debut next door at the then-Royale with And Things That Go Bump in the Night— it went hiss and expired like a deflating tire in 16 performances — and he also thanked his producers for believing new American plays have a place on Broadway.
Steggert then stepped forth and underlined the play's historic first: It is the first play ever to depict a married gay couple on the Broadway stage. In honor of that first, he rather eloquently made the first pitch for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS funds ever made on an opening night. He suggested patrons take a look at the price of the tickets, "which probably says 0.00," dig deep into their pockets and have one drink less at the Sardi's party that commenced then.
Steggert was right about Sardi's, and this particular gathering of first-nighters could have been blindfolded and, flying on instinct, would have had no problem finding their way, via the Shubert Alley short-cut, to the famous theatrical watering hole.
Now, about that play: Before McNally had Tonys rolling in like boulders chasing Indiana Jones, he expanded an eight-minute sketch he did for a Manhattan Theatre Club benefit into a 50-minute teleplay for the "American Playhouse" series.
"Andre's Mother" starred Richard Thomas and the late Sada Thompson in 20-year earlier versions of the characters Weller and Daly play now — and much to his amazement, it won him his first award — the 1990 Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special. The National Board of Review seconded that acclaim by naming Andre's Mother Outstanding Television Movie of the Year.
"It was surprising," McNally remembered, "because everyone said 'There's no way a modest-budget PBS television movie will win over a network film with big stars.'" Apparently, the person in charge of the seating arrangements agreed with him. "I was seated in the last row in the last seat on the aisle — not the good aisle either, the aisle by the wall — so when they said, 'The winner is...' there was a lot of 'excuse me's on live TV to get to that podium." The long schlog home with his unwieldy win the following day was also awkward and clumsy. "Unlike the Tonys, they give you the award that night, and it's a big dangerous thing with sharp edges. You can't pack it — it's too big — so, on the plane back, I was holding it on my lap all the way home."
Jed Bernstein, currently a kingpin at Lincoln Center, deserves some oblique creative credit for Mothers and Sons. When he was in charge of rebooting the Bucks County Playhouse, he asked McNally to dramatize "Andre's Mother" for Daly to do there.
"That's exactly how it happened," said McNally. "I literally sat down to adapt a 25-year-old play into a theatre piece and suddenly discovered I didn't want to be in the '80s again. I wanted to be in 2014 and celebrate the changes we've made. It's really not a sequel. I don't think that you have to know 'Andre's Mother' to appreciate it."
Bernstein said the project was on the express track. "From there to here, it was 14 months," he relayed. "That's fast, and that's the way theatre should be produced."
Fast-fowarding to Mothers and Sons, time has marched on and all over the surviving gay lover. He has taken a husband, now that that's an option, and they are raising a son created by artificial insemination. In contrast, Andre's mother is unchanged, and she is still holding on to the grief for her son, undistracted by recent widowhood.
It's clear that Daly, who can humanize the phonebook, has her work cut out for her. When the lights go up on her at the beginning of the play, she is fixed and inflexible, much the way Sada Thompson left her. In fact, she is almost the spitting image of Thompson.
"Maybe Sada was along with me tonight," she suggested. "I worked with her once — 'The Entertainer' — with Jack Lemmon and Ray Bolger and Michael Cristofer. We did it for television. I'll tell you what, when I go on stage, I like to ask another actress to help me. Some nights, it's Maureen Stapleton. Sometimes, it's Pat Neal. Some nights, it's Carol Burnett. Tonight it was my mother, Hope Daly. She was a wonderful actress but never made a career. I like other energies, the talents and sensibilities of other actresses. I invite them to come with me every night. Sometimes, it's Duse."
The hardest thing for her tonight was waiting for the audience to settle down. "When they call half-hour, I start to do my thing, and then it's five minutes, and you're up. Tonight, we had to wait because tonight is opening night and they're all out there admiring each other." Slow starts can make a person nervous, evidently.
Holding his own in conversation combat with what could have been his mother-in-law (God forbid!), Weller advanced a decent person who's vulnerable to her invisible punches and learns to fight back. "This is one of the best-written characters I've ever encountered," insisted the actor. "He's a good person who's not comfortable with being confrontational, but she provokes it, and it eventually comes out. He's got a great character arc."
Steggert admitted she is a tough character to take on. "My performance has changed in the past few weeks in the sense that I had to find a way to evolve compassion for her," he admitted. "In the first drafts, my character resisted her, but Terrence and I and the director worked together to find the compassion for this woman who clearly needs help."
The character is a good contemporary fit for him. "I love that he is of the generation where family and marriage and health are something he considers to be his birth right. He takes opportunity, he doesn't have doubt, he doesn't have shame, and he lives life to the fullest. He's an example of what the modern gay man can be."
An even farther peek into the future came from Master Taylor, making his Broadway debut at age 8. "I would like to do this again," he said. "Any character."
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