Jessica Lange Finds New Ways to Melt Hearts in ‘Mother Play’

Drinking, cursing, disco dancing, it’s a hateful character—but also a colorful role that shows the many diverse factions of Jessica Lange’s talent. 

Jessica Lange is hilarious and touching as Phyllis in ‘Mother Play’. Joan Marcus

A few days after Rachel McAdams made a noble but disappointing Broadway debut in Mary Jane, Jessica Lange fared much better in Mother Play, also about an unhappy mother, this one with two problematic children instead of one. Like Mary Jane, it’s one long act without intermission, subtitled “A Play in Five Evictions” because it begins in 1964 and covers several decades in the lives of a mother named Phyllis (Ms. Lange, hilarious and touching) and her son and daughter, Carl (Jim Parsons) and Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger, who played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird)—both marvelous—who move from town to town, enduring a series of horrible episodes and getting evicted five times from cheap apartments crawling with mice, cockroaches, and maggots. By the end, they are all halfway to madness, but I had a ball going bonkers with them.  

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The play begins when Carl is 14 and Martha is 12, both already showing signs of the decadent yet heartbreaking adults they will become (all based on real family members in the author’s life, all of whom have become familiar characters in her plays). Phyllis is already the 30-something mother from Hell—bitter and smarting after being deserted by her husband (talked about but never seen) and left with two kids she never wanted in the first place. “Today is the day our lives get better,” she says. But they always get worse. Phyllis hates men and loves gin. Jim Parsons is precocious as Carl and says things like, “All problems begin with sexual repression.” He lies around, prissing about in bizarre outfits, and reads Jane Austen and Lytton Strachey, passing The Well of Loneliness down to his kid sister, Martha. Their function is to mix their mother’s martinis, costume her in peculiar fashions, and light her cigarettes, ignoring her disapproval and her contemptuous criticism of everything they do and say. This is the kind of mother who is so ashamed that her son is gay that she pretends he has a fever in order to prevent him from going to his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. Drinking, cursing, disco dancing, she’s a hateful character—but also a colorful role that shows the many diverse factions of Jessica Lange’s talent. 

She’s already won every award in the book for playing, among others, a Eugene O’Neill drug addict, a Tennessee Williams mother, Frances Farmer, Blanche DuBois, and Joan Crawford. There’s nothing controversial she can’t play, but even when she seems cruel, self-serving and pitiless, she finds ways to melt your heart. There is a scene played in silence, in which she sets a lonely table with a rose, prepares an inedible dinner, and listens to radio music by Jerome Kern and Rodges and Hart, ending in meditation and, finally, tears that rise above and beyond anything on the written page. No matter what you’ve thought about Phyllis before, assisted living, dementia and the inevitable wheelchair make her final solution unforgettable.

Mother Play is a tragedy, leavened with humor. Paula Vogel paints a three-dimensional picture of troubled, complex people, and Jessica Lange distills the essence of power and fragility into the magnanimity of art.

The Mother Play | 1hr 45mins. No intermission. | The Hayes Theater | 240 W 44th Street | 212-541-4516 | Buy Tickets Here  

Jessica Lange Finds New Ways to Melt Hearts in ‘Mother Play’