Friday, July 17, 2009



Written by Lisa Ebersole. Directed by Andrew Grosso. At The Wild Project Theatre. (CLOSED)

If you like the show "Two and a Half Men" and would like to sit onstage with one of its stars, gather thirty dollars and head to The Wild Project; there you can sate your celebrity hunger during the summer re-run season. Most critics seem mystified that such a project ever came to be -- so wide is the chasm between Holland Taylor's sitcom cred and Lisa Ebersole's script, evidently. The reviews take pains to protect the bigger names from their undeserving writer and director, but even at their most enthusiastic (Backstage, Curtain Up), they can't quite summon a full-throated recommendation for this dysfunctional family story. Apart from the presence of Taylor and Buck Henry, Mother has only her brevity (75 minutes) and an optional onstage seating upgrade (with alcohol!) to recommend her.

Backstage B-
(Erik Haagensen) What the show has going for it, aside from Henry and Taylor, is Ebersole's ear for dialogue. She knows exactly who these people are and how they interact. Under Andrew Grosso's precise direction, the cast navigates complicated physical business and all that chatter with utter conviction. It's impressive to watch. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel like it's serving any particular purpose. There is a moment, when a handwritten note arrives at the family's table apparently announcing that daughter Kate has been kidnapped, when it seems the play is moving beyond cute hyperrealism to something more interesting. But Ebersole drops the gambit without exploiting it.

Curtain Up C+
(Paulanne Simmons) Ebersole and Grosso work hard to make the play seem naturalistic. Patrons willing to pay $30 are seated at tables onstage and served a glass of Prosecco. And Ebersole, perhaps under the belief that the average American is incapable of articulating a lengthy thought, limits her sentences to about a half dozen words at most. Unfortunately, the staccato effect thus produced seems much more artificial than the longer more evocative sentences of more ambitious playwrights who have some faith in the attention span of the average theatergoer. Although King and Ebersole never manage to do much with their snarky dialogue, Henry has his moments, and Taylor virtually lights up the stage to such a degree that she is sorely missed when the playwright finds some excuse to get her offstage.

Variety C
(Marilyn Stasio) Buck Henry and Holland Taylor are good reasons to see "Mother." Actually, Buck Henry and Holland Taylor are the only reasons to see this mannered comedy. Penned by Lisa Ebersole, who has written herself a role in this production, the play observes an upper-crust family carrying on their traditional ritual of bickering their way through an elegant New Year's Eve dinner at a staid Southern resort. Henry and Taylor snap at their leaden lines like trophy trout, injecting their Mater and Pater roles with transformative vivacity and humor. But how on earth did the scribe ever land these big fish?

New York Post D+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) [E]verybody has a habit of getting up and leaving the room under flimsy pretenses, making it hard to keep a conversation going. It's during one of Kate's offstage moments that we're told she was taken by the (unseen) Wilson family. It's an intriguing development, but it's stillborn, like everything else in the play. Jackie dates a married woman -- but nothing is made of it. There's palpable hostility between Kitty and her brood -- but it's as unexplained as it is senseless. Besides the presence of its stars, the other puzzling aspect of this 75-minute-long ordeal is the total absence of anything resembling a point or, worse, laughs. That's a problem for a would-be comedy.

Talkin' Broadway D+
(Matthew Murray) It’s hoary old playmaking, to be sure, but when that final scene arrives - and everyone learns the obligatory important things about themselves and each other - a few bursts of sparks do legitimately fly. Forced to confront issues that wrench them from their self-concerned bubbles, the four characters at last talk and act like a family - and become not only interesting, but even charming. If it’s Ebersole’s point that even the shakiest family can be made blisteringly real when faced with a truly life-altering challenge, she makes it with aplomb once she makes the decision to. But all the dithering that leads up to it does not make for an engaging evening.

Talk Entertainment D+
(Oscar E. Moore) So it was with great and high expectations that I awaited the start of Mother. The decorations and the cast and the background musak, aka “elevator music” put me in a very nice mood. And then it started. And then I thought “What is this?” And then I thought of those lucky people drinking their Prosecco, served by the attractive waiter (David Rosenblatt). And then I thought “what time is it?” Then the entrĂ©e was served. And then it was over.

New York Times D
(Jason Zinoman) This odd, meandering new play wastes the talents of its venerable performers Buck Henry and Holland Taylor. I suppose it’s possible that the awkwardness onstage is intentional. After all, this is a play about a dysfunctional family bickering at a restaurant in a refined resort in West Virginia, although the bright red carpeting makes it look more like a den in a suburban basement ... The director, Andrew Grosso, could have clearly used some more time in the rehearsal room, and he might want to rethink the high-risk idea of placing pairs of audience members at tables onstage. It’s hard enough to watch a play that isn’t working, but observing someone else watching the same thing can be even more dispiriting.

Theatre Mania D
(Andy Propst) [D]irector Andrew Rosso has staged Mother with an almost lackadaisical hand. He allows the action to unfurl casually and without a sense of tension, which only accentuates the wandering nature of Ebersole's writing. Taylor, who looks terrific in a tailored cocktail dress from costume designer Becky Lasky, and Henry both do their best to infuse Mother with comedic pungency and drive, but even these two A-list performers can seem as adrift as the material they've been given. And King and Ebersole deliver almost colorless, one-note performances as the younger members of this tiresome and frequently unpleasant group -- which, by the end of the play, still remains a curiously distant cipher.

Light & Sound America D
(David Barbour) Nothing much happens: There's a bizarre subplot about the family's contentious relationship with another, unseen, clan, but it exists only as a reason to get characters on and off the stage. Conflicts are brought up, then dropped, every few minutes, as the conversation heads into another dead end. Kitty delivers two bombshells near the finale, but nothing comes of either one. With so many loose ends, I began to wonder if Mother was originally a longer play -- not that I'm asking for that.

Reuters D
(Frank Scheck) "Two and a Half Men" is not generally considered the most sophisticated of situation comedies. But its level of wit is of Oscar Wilde proportions compared to "Mother," a new off-Broadway play that the series' star, Holland Taylor, has unwisely graced with her presence during the TV show's hiatus. Also featuring the great and too-little-seen Buck Henry, this meandering, would-be comedy by Lisa Ebersole is a sorry waste of its stars' talents. D-
(David Gordon) Ebersole & King provide little support for the estimable Taylor & Henry, who themselves can barely make sense of the nothingness of the script. Yet, the difference between Ebersole & King and Taylor & Henry is that the latter, through years and years of experience, know how to make the most of even a black hole. Smith, who has the most developed part, actually has a character to work with. And he's just as good as the legends above the title ... I was confused as to why the play was produced at all.

Time Out New York D-
(Adam Feldman) After half an hour spent watching a generic family of rich WASPs drink Prosecco and sting each other witlessly—Taylor and Henry are the aging parents, Haskell King is the obnoxious son and Ebersole herself is the bland daughter—I seriously began to wonder if I was missing something. That thesis was briefly supported by Mother’s only clever idea: recurring, unexplained references to an offstage war with a rival family, including an ever-present threat of abduction. But that Pinteresque thread leads nowhere, and the script devolves into a prickly-sentimental paean to family togetherness.

Backstage B- 9; Curtain Up C+ 8; Variety C 7; New York Post D+ 5; Talkin' Broadway D+ 5; Talk Entertainment D+ 5; New York Times D 4; Theatre Mania D 4; Light & Sound D 4; Reuters D 4; Nytheatre D- 3; Time Out New York D- 3. TOTAL: 61/12 = 5.08 (D+)

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