Lisa Kron’s Memory Play, Well: Love Mom, Don’t Care for Lisa

My problem with Lisa Kron’s autobiographical Well on Broadway is that I didn’t enjoy it. I tried. But the same was regrettably true when I first saw the well-regarded play two years ago at the Public. Ms. Kron’s arty reflections on the nature of fiction, truth and memory, as well as the comi-tragedy of illness and allergies, mother-daughter relationships, racial integration, symbolic cosmic togetherness, idealistic comatose parents and Pirandello, are too much for me.

More to the point, they are too much for the playwright. The techniques of Six Characters in Search of an Author are both appealing and hackneyed, and coincidentally Ms. Kron has six actors in Well. But her doddering Pirandellian device is a smokescreen that disguises the weaknesses of the play, deflating and disarming like a pre-emptive strike against criticism. Hence a character can step out of a role to dismiss Well as “fucked-up downtown bullshit”—and get away with it. The audience laughs at the playfully irreverent modesty of it all. But what if you agree with the verdict?

Ms. Kron, the popular downtown performance artist and founding member of the award-winning theater company the Five Lesbian Brothers, is sincere, but she has taken on more than a few mighty themes. Not least is the nature and mystery of theatrical illusion. But the play itself—directed by Leigh Silverman—is basically simple-minded. It announces itself and does not respond. “This play that we’re about to do deals with issues of illness and wellness,” Ms. Kron informs us at the start. “It asks the question: Why are some people sick and other people are well? Why are some people sick for years and years and other people are sick for a while but then they get better? Why is that? What is the difference between these people?”

For myself, I’m not sure that coping with allergies is too thrilling a premise for a play. Ms. Kron, though irrepressibly sunny, makes her life sound like a seminar. Her damaged mother, a former civil-rights worker who’s lying semi-comatose on the La-Z-Boy, didn’t recover from the crippling malaise that overcame her many years ago, though she has surprisingly vibrant moments. Her daughter did recover from her strange childhood allergies (and became a performance artist). But the semi-hip Ms. Kron, butch in black, never explores the issues at stake. She complains about them.

Well’s 100 intermission-less minutes are described as a “solo show with other people in it.” If so, hell is other people pretending to be children. Ms. Kron’s flashbacks to her unhappy childhood are performed by the adult cast in cartoon costumes like a noisily infantilized episode of Sesame Street. Must everything in American culture be reduced to the cute? It’s a disastrous choice for Well that trivializes very real traumas. But then, apart from the playwright’s imagined mom, the adults are portrayed as caricatures and types whose struggles with a hard, incomprehensible life seem unconvincingly stagy.

Ms. Kron is more assured as a traditional monologist. Her story of being wrapped in plastic as a child for a Fourth of July costume parade, for example, lifted the show for me. She was meant to be a geisha girl pulling a rickshaw. But her mother made the kimono out of plastic and she fainted dead away in the heat. “Oh my God,” Ms. Kron remembers her mom saying at the time, “I don’t know what I was thinking!”

And here’s the assured stand-up Ms. Kron on the pitfalls of therapy and moving away from home: “And you get some distance. And after a while you start to be able to see your family so clearly. And you think: Wow, the next time I go home I am really going to help them out. But then you go home and what you realize is that your parents live in an alternative universe where your therapy has no power.”

She has summarized in a nutshell why you can’t go home again sane. But the play isn’t nearly as good as the monologue. Or as Mom puts it as she comments wryly from her giant La-Z-Boy on the action: “She’s more used to the one-woman shows.”

“The play is not about my mother and me,” Ms. Kron keeps emphasizing with a knowing grin. Rather, it’s ironically described as “a theatrical construct” or a “multi-character theatrical exploration.” At which Mom, seen lying in a depressed doze, groans: “Oh dear Lord.”

Can you blame her? It’s a weird play. The near-narcoleptic mom—representing Ms. Kron’s real-life mom—is the star of the evening. She hijacks the play from her daughter by constantly interrupting the action from the sidelines, and we’re glad that she does. Whether by accident or by design, she’s wittier than her daughter and she’s smarter. She also acts better.

But Ms. Kron is, of course, playing herself, and she’s a limited performer with only a few notes. Jayne Houdyshell is giving us a wonderfully appealing performance as a woman with a social conscience who long ago found the pain of being alive too much. Ms. Houdyshell in her old housecoat and slippers appears schleppy, warm and intelligent. The actresses’ sense of comic timing is supreme, her unpretentiousness vivid. We want to embrace her when she wakes up and notices us—the audience—for the first time.

“Oh, hello!” she says, surprised. “Hi. How’re you doing? I’d offer you a more comfortable chair, but then where would we put the coats?”

The chairs—or orchestra seats—at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway are as uncomfortable as Jet Blue, incidentally. There’s no legroom—not like Mom’s comfy La-Z-Boy. I have little doubt that when it comes to Tony Award time, Ms. Houdyshell will be high on everyone’s list. Her utterly natural performance conveys an essential quality that Ms. Kron can only talk about. She suggests the tender mercies of a wounded soul.

Ms. Kron as herself is merely neurotic and earnest, and not unsmug. She cares about her mother, but she fails to understand her. She doesn’t “get” her. “You know what?” she says irritably to her mother after her umpteenth interruption. “Why don’t you do your own show?”

“I don’t want a show,” Mom replies a little indignantly. It was the best line of the evening. She wants to be understood, or left alone to watch ice-skating on TV. She doesn’t want to be reduced to a show. Not this one, anyway.

In every mother is a devastating critic. She describes Well lethally from the sidelines as “too small,” “limited” and “trite.”

It’s honest of Ms. Kron, at least. But I’m afraid I’m with her mom.