by JK Clarke
The ravages of old age—dementia, senility, Alzheimer’s—are prime fodder for playwrights. There have been countless pieces dedicated to the painful breakdown of a parental figure (from one of the best examples, King Lear, to last year’s Florian Zeller play, The Father, which garnered the great Frank Langella a Tony Award) certainly because of the overwhelming impact the transition has on the subject’s off-spring, who are, often uncomfortably, forced to migrate from being a child role to parental one. Mother of Invention, the latest effort by James Lecesne (The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey), now in its world premiere and presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company, attempts to tackle this emotional territory in a tenuous, humorous and oftentimes mystical manner.
Siblings Leanne (Angela Reed) and David (James Davis) are in the process of moving their mother Dottie (a complex and sympathetic Concetta Tomei)—a septuagenarian slipping into Alzheimer’s, whose personality and lifestyle is more vibrant and diverse than they could have guessed—from Florida into an “assisted living” complex in Arizona. As they pack their belongings, they begin to discover things about Dottie, each other and themselves, revealing painful and sometimes joyous truths. While they work, however, Dottie is in the room, commenting on their activities and conversation. But they don’t see or hear her. No, she’s not a ghost—apparently, for she’s said to be alive and in Tucson already—and she clearly sees them. It’s a strange device, meant to be a vehicle for filling in gaps in the story, that works only partly. When David and Leanne reminisce, upon coming across a Christmas tree skirt they’d made as children, Dottie contradicts their version of the story. But things get strange when she raises a salient point and they fail (for they cannot see or hear her) to further it, much to the audience’s frustration.
Then things get really weird when eccentric neighbor Jane (played with sparkling wit by Dale Soules) reveals that Dottie has been giving money to a South American man named Frankie Rey (Dan Domingues), who’d found her when she’d gotten lost at the shopping mall. The story becomes convoluted, but Rey appears to be a con artist who tells Dottie a specious story about a lost tribe attempting to come down from the mountains to “keep the world alive.” Dottie has written several checks to help fund said tribe (quite obviously Rey stealing her money). Reflecting out loud, she explains why: “Being alone. You ask me, that’s the real terror.” Conflict erupts between Rey and Dottie’s children . . . and yet he also seduces them. The play not only veers off into the mystical, but the improbable. It’s a reflection, perhaps, of the scrambling of the Alzheimer’s brain.
The Mother of Invention is hampered by both its attempt to do too many things in a limited space and by none of those things being fresh and/or revelatory (reflected even in the unimaginative cliché of a title). Lecesne, an Oscar winner and celebrated playwright, misses the mark here, being too expository and unfocused. But Director Tony Speciale has brought on a top flight cast to tackle the emotional fare, and succeeds in rescuing the material, shaping it into a watchable, if seemingly long play at 90 minutes without intermission. Jo Winaiarski’s set, walls of boxes that are gradually removed to reveal a more traditional home interior, perhaps acknowledging the removal of a family’s clutter and baggage. Soules, Tomei and Reed add feminine strength into a world where a stereotypical macho male attempts to manipulate and control them. When the “healthy” women unite to dispense with him, and manage their other problems, we get the feeling they will eventually be all right.
The Mother of Invention. Through February 26 at the June Havoc Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Complex (312 West 36th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues) www.abingdontheatre.org
Photos: Maria Baranova