New York — Terrence McNally’s new play opens with a woman of a certain age wearing a lush, black fur coat. It’s a provocatively politically incorrect garment — and a giveaway that what will come out of her mouth will be, too.
Of gay couples, she says: “After all these years, it still sickens me.” Of her son being born gay: “Everything is a choice.” On the concept of gays able to marry: “How easily you say that word, husband.” At least she vaguely knows how offensive she is. Exasperated, she confesses: “Everything I say is inappropriate.”
The woman in “Mothers and Sons” is Katharine Gerard, and she has come unannounced on a cold winter’s day to the Central Park West apartment of her son’s former lover. He died of AIDS almost 20 years ago, and she has a lot of unresolved feelings — about him, her and the world in general.
But, like the coat, be careful about dismissing her or making too many assumptions, especially when she’s being portrayed by Tyne Daly, an actress who is particularly good at playing blustery battle-axes with soft interiors. Daly, the former star of the TV show “Cagney & Lacey” and later winner of a Tony for “Gypsy,” is simply wonderful here, a remote and chilly guest who clings to old ideas even as she knows they are out of date and secretly pines for love.
The gentle and moving “Mothers and Sons” opened Monday at the Golden Theatre, where a celebrated revival of the searing AIDS drama “The Normal Heart” was staged in 2011. As a sign of how much has changed, McNally’s play is being billed as the first time a legally married gay couple has been portrayed on Broadway.
McNally’s play touches on those terrible years when AIDS was a death sentence. In the new work, Gerard’s son, Andre, died of the disease but his lover, Cal Porter, did not. Porter, played with real emotion and care by Frederick Weller, mourned alone for many years and then found someone new, marrying and having a child, now 6.
Cal’s husband, a nicely fussy and prickly Bobby Steggert, is naturally none too pleased to come home and find the mother of his husband’s previous great love in their living room. It doesn’t help that she’s hostile: Her son is dead and she’s upset that everyone has moved on.
Article continues belowMcNally wonderfully has the two sides passive-aggressively battle over language — “passed” versus “dead,” ”house” versus “apartment” and “comfort” versus “love” are some of the skirmishes. Says Gerard: “I dislike imprecision.” After a slight from her, Cal’s husband replies: “I like precision, too.”
The 90-minute play moves quickly, and although some of the most angry exchanges seem to erupt from nowhere, the playwright beautifully shows how close to the surface long-suppressed emotions and slights can fester.
The ending is somewhat ambiguous as it winds down — hopeful without being maudlin. It’s then that the boy, played well by Grayson Taylor, pipes up and reveals that he might be the most honest one of the bunch. This innocent offers both sides a chance to disarm and stop looking backward, even if that fur coat is still on.
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