Marsha Norman’s ‘Night, Mother, at the Royale on Broadway with Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn, is the first play I’ve seen that makes suicide utterly mundane. You might think the least suicide could be is dramatic, particularly in a play, but that isn’t Ms. Norman’s intention.
The intriguing raison d’être of her 1983 Pulitzer Prize–winning play is, quite simply, that people who’ve had enough of life have a right to end it. The playwright deliberately doesn’t present us with a moral dilemma or debate in the hackneyed tradition of, say, Whose Life Is It, Anyway? On the other hand, if you find yourself not caring as much as perhaps you ought about the suicidal heroine of ‘Night, Mother-if, in fact, you find yourself not even giving a damn after a while whether she kills herself or not-either the play has problems or you do.
Let’s not blame you.
The play, directed by Michael Mayer, begins with the sweet-toothed Thelma-or Mama-reaching for a cupcake in the kitchen cabinet. “I hate it when the coconut falls off,” Mama (the homey Brenda Blethyn) says to herself. “Why does the coconut fall off?”
Who knows! Enter her dowdy daughter, Jessie (Edie Falco in long, moth-eaten sweater), to ask: “We got any old towels?”
The social message is clear at the outset: These are ordinary folk living in an ordinary house in Anywhere, U.S.A. (We could be in the South, but no matter: Coconut falls off the cupcake just the same). After a few minutes’ chit-chat about the gun Daddy left behind in the loft, Jessie says calmly: “I’m going to kill myself, Mama.”
She’s so matter-of-fact about it, she could have said, “I’m going for a walk, Mama.” And, in a sense, that’s exactly what Jessie is doing: She’s going for a walk and she’s not coming back. Mama-who’s chatty and a bit dim and ordinary-doesn’t take it in at first. Her daughter’s suicide will take place 90 minutes later, at the end of the play-at the final curtain, as it were. Jessie actually rationalizes the suicide as if she’s getting off a bus. “It’s my trip,” she explains to Mama, “and I’ve had enough.”
Well, why not? Fair enough …. When Jessie asks what alternative there is for her, Mama suggests buying new dishes or rearranging the furniture. Wouldn’t you feel suicidal?
The mother’s empty life revolves quite contentedly around shopping at the A. and P., watching TV and a bit of family gossip. She’s about as interesting as her life. The daughter isn’t too thrilling, either. She lives unhappily with Mama; her life has become pointless; her daddy’s dead; her husband has left her; their son’s a teenage delinquent who left home for a life of crime; she can’t hold a job (she’s an epileptic); she doesn’t see the point of anything; and she never loved Mama in the first place. The dice are loaded, wouldn’t you say? Killing herself is the one positive thing she can do.
She’s resolute about it, cruel and not a little smug. The battles with the complacent mother are small and niggling, the family secrets pro forma. A good deal of the play is spent in staggering domestic inconsequence as Jessie organizes Mama’s future life without her: how she should work the washer properly; the cancellation of the newspapers; what to do about the milk. The Handi Wipes are under the sink; garbage night is Tuesday (“put it out as late as you can”); the toilet-paper supplies are plentiful. And how about a last caramel apple?
“Family is just accident, Jessie,” Mama tells her with genuine innocence. “It’s nothing personal, hon. They don’t mean to get on your nerves. They don’t even mean to be your family. They just are.”
True, if forlorn. And Mama got on my nerves just the same. But I simply couldn’t connect to her suicidal daughter. There’s no turmoil in the role, no sense of struggle or real loss, only a droning, commonplace inevitability.
Sarah Kane’s much admired 4.48 Psychosis, which played recently at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is a study in contrasts-the last howl of a playwright on the edge of her own traumatic suicide. At times, the piece is bitterly funny; at others, we turn into reluctant voyeurs. (“Watch me vanish.”) But with its natural poetry and adolescent fury, Ms. Kane’s tragedy is an open wound that touches and infects us. It embraces death by grieving terribly for life.
But the domestic drabness of ‘Night, Mother contains no life that I could see. Ms. Falco makes an emotionally cold, pragmatic Jessie, but the star has little or no choice. She’s playing the glib role as written. When it comes to the crunch, however, the playwright pulls out all the conventional stops and begs for our sorrow with the mother’s tearful breakdown at the close. It’s Mama, if anyone, the audience feels sorry for. She’s the child. Ms. Blethyn-whose crying jags are familiar from Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies-ensures that Mama’s lonely fate is bathetic, not tragic. And Mama, unfortunately, has the meatier role.
John Patrick Shanley’s early breakthrough play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at Second Stage Theatre is subtitled “An Apache Dance,” and it’s typical of the Mr. Shanley we’ve come to know that he defines “An Apache Dance” for us in the script.
Lest we miss the point of the play, “An Apache Dance,” he says, “is a violent dance for two people, originated by the Parisian apaches. Parisian apaches are gangsters or ruffians.”
The Parisian apaches are no relation, I assume, to the Swiss apaches. (The Swiss apaches are less visceral, more clockwork). There’s a strong sense in all of Mr. Shanley’s work that he’s gone on some manic improvisation. He works it out by writing the play, but he seems to leave everything in. At 70 minutes, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is short, but it isn’t a minimalist play.
Mr. Shanley is a wordy playwright who’s warming up here like a fighter entering the ring. “This play is dedicated to everyone in the Bronx who punched me or kissed me, and to everyone whom I punched or kissed,” goes another of his notes in the script, and we haven’t even started yet. He makes it seem as if there’s an awful lot of punching and kissing in his life. The 1984 Danny and the Deep Blue Sea reminds us of early David Mamet in this sense: It comes out swinging.
Danny is a trucker nicknamed “The Beast,” and Roberta is a divorced mother who lives with her parents and sucked off her father. “Some fuckin’ bar. Nobody here,” says Danny, whose hands are bleeding.
“That’s why I like it,” says Roberta, who looks emotionally battered.
“What’s the matter? You don’t like people?”
“No. Not really.”
“What happened to your hands?”
“Who’d you fight?”
“I don’t know. Some guys last night. Tonight too.”
“I don’t know. Guys bother me. I start swinging.”
“I don’t get it. Did they say something to you?”
Danny explodes. “Who the fuck asked you to get it! Ain’t none of your fuckin’ business. I lock horns with anybody. Nobody crosses my fuckin’ line, man! They can do what they want out there, but nobody crosses my fuckin’ line!”
“They asked me where I was going.”
“The guys I was fighting tonight ….”
It’s good stuff, yes? It zings with gutter vitality and humor. But the narrative is predictable, the more so as time has passed since its first production. Mr. Shanley’s two violent protagonists meet in the Bronx bar, end up at her place, fuck, confess, fight, fantasize about marriage-normalcy, comfort-and wake up to reality.
“Just ’cause it don’t make no sense don’t mean it ain’t true,” says Danny. “It could be true. If you want it. I ain’t never planned no single fuckin’ thing in my life. I ain’t never done nothin’. Things happen to me. Me, you, what you did. We didn’t do that stuff. It happened ta us.”
Mr. Shanley believes in the redemption of love. That is, he would like to believe in it. The weakness of his early piece is its whopping American clichés: the inarticulate, tender brute, the needy slut. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the revival needs more nuance from its young actors, Adam Rothenberg and Rosemarie De Witt. Violence is easy. Ask the apaches.