The Good Mother
Written by Francine Volpe
Directed by Scott Elliot
At Theater Row Theaters
The New Group at Theatre Row,
410 West 42nd Street,
New York. NY 10036
The skeleton of a good play resides somewhere in Francine Volpe’s story of a struggling single mother. Some of the classic ingredients of a good drama are here: internal and external conflicts, buried secrets revealed, a pivotal event that triggers a transformation. The trouble with Volpe’s script, and with Scott Elliot’s direction, is that there are so many distracting elements and static beats that the thrust of what might be a compelling story is obscured.
The play takes place in a modest wood paneled living room, where Larissa (Gretchen Mol) is anxiously readying herself to reenter the dating world. After spending the last four years raising her autistic daughter, Allyson and building her accounting business, Larssia has had little time for fun. Like any parent, she’s entitled to a night off, so long as the child is in good hands. But her choice of babysitters turns out to be disastrous. Goth-boy Angus (Eric Nelsen), has no experience with special-needs kids, and is unlikely to know how to handle the child’s frequent outbursts. Nevertheless, off Larissa goes, returning a few hours later with Jonathan (Darren Goldstein), a burly truck driver she has picked up in a bar. Angus maintains that everything went okay, but Larissa notices something odd in her daughter’s behavior. She fears Angus has done something “inappropriate,” although what that might mean is never specified. Allyson can’t speak, so Larissa takes her to a specialist who can interpret her signals.
The incident triggers a confrontation with Angus’s dad Joel (Mark Blum), a therapist with whom Larissa has a lengthy history. As a troubled teen, she and a tight group of peers were mentored by Joel. Now Joel is under investigation. It appears that he has crossed professional boundaries in his relationships with his young wards. The last thing he needs is for his son to be dragged into a scandal as well. Thus Larissa and Joel, who formerly shared a (possibly unethical) bond in the past, now find themselves on opposite sides. Larissa’s case looks weak. Would a good mother have brought a stranger home for sex while her daughter lay unattended in the nursery? To make matters worse, Angus, having misinterpreted Larissa’s rhetoric, accuses her of making a pass at him. As tensions rise in the town, Larissa’s business dries up and someone throws a brick through her window. Jonathan offers to help, as does Buddy (Alfredo Narciso), a policeman who was once also a part of Joel’s wayward-teen group. Ultimately though, Larissa must determine for herself how best to keep herself and her child out of trouble—if she can.
Volpe has a sensitive ear for the cadences of everyday speech and the priorities of working- class Americans. She is less skilled at dramatic structure and pacing. Larissa remains oddly passive throughout much of the play and it’s unclear what she is fighting for. Her best-written exchange occurs with the troubled Angus, who – with some justification – sees her questioning of him as manipulative and creepy. The other men don’t push back at Larissa enough, and most of what they talk about occurs offstage or in the past tense. Larissa doesn’t seem all that interested in Jonathan, and yet he continues to take up her time. More crucially, we never find out whether Allyson has been abused or even what Larissa believes may have happened. The implication is that the “good mother” has used her daughter as a prop to lure Joel back into her life. Yet why she’d want to do that isn’t adequately explained in their one scene together. The rhythm of the evening is not helped by Elliot’s curiously tame staging. Blum, for example is for some reason directed to sit slumped over and stare at the floor: a strange choice for a crucial scene in which Joel beseeches Larissa to back off from his family. With virtually no movement or eye contact, Mol has little to react to. The scene doesn’t really take off until Joel, sober for years, reaches for a bottle of whisky — at which point the lights begin to fade. Likewise, Larissa’s early scenes with Jonathan are so tentative that the actors, rather than the characters, begin to look awkward.
It’s unfortunate that the actors aren’t better served by the material and the production. Mol, known for her glamorous movie roles, turns out to be a capable stage actress and brings a refreshing honesty to the part. The all-male supporting cast gives her as much support as possible, despite the fact that all the characters, apart from Angus, approach Larissa as if they were walking on eggs. The New Group, for whom Elliot also serves as artistic director, has a commendable history of giving up-and-coming playwrights a shot. What they don’t seem to have, though, is a structured workshop system for the development of new plays. The Good Mother is one of several recent New Group productions whose cast is committed and whose script has a ring of truth, but which is in need of a dramaturgical makeover.