They called him "the Butcher of Broadway" for a reason. During his tenure as chief theater critic for The New York Times between 1980 and 1993, Frank Rich was widely known as the man who could make or break a show with a few lines of prose. While plays by the likes of August Wilson, Tony Kushner, and John Guare flourished as a result of Rich's praise, the works of innumerable other dramatists were squelched under the weight of his acerbic words. A pan from Rich didn't always mean instant decapitation — a handful of productions, such as the juggernaut Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, The Phantom of the Opera, went on to lead bountiful lives in spite of negative reviews. But they were the exception rather than the rule.
Rich left David Greenspan's dark comedy Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain for dead.during its virgin run at New York's Public Theater in 1991. If battering the play for being "shallow," "interminable," "smirky," "anachronistic," "gratuitous," and "embarrassing" wasn't enough to dig it an early grave, the critic accused the playwright of egotism and pretentiousness in his epitaph-like review. "If you feel left out at Mr. Greenspan's play, that does not necessarily mean you are a moron or a bigot," Rich railed, "but only, perhaps, that you have an aversion to being bored."
Like the ghost of an unpopular relative returning for a visit years after her demise, Dead Mother is enjoying a belated — and totally transcendent — second coming at San Francisco's Traveling Jewish Theatre. Far from being "an angry play about a hateful mother," as Rich dismissively concluded 17 years ago, this contortionist comedy encompassing everything from Dante's Inferno to dentistry provides an engrossing workout for both the heart and mind.
To reduce Dead Mother to a Freudian drama about a mother-son relationship is to completely miss the point. It's true that Shirley, the titular Jewish matriarch, exerts uncommon influence on her two grown sons, Harold and Daniel, from beyond the grave. In a pivotal scene, Harold, a married, semicloseted homosexual, goes as far as to impersonate his mother in order to help his brother win his girlfriend Maxine's hand in marriage. (Daniel has neglected to tell Maxine about Shirley's passing, and Maxine refuses to marry him until she and her aging great-great-uncle Saul have made the fabled lady's acquaintance.) Liam Vincent's raucous performance as Harold hits its highest point when the bearded actor dons a simple string of pearls over his black turtleneck shirt to embody his mother. The gorgeous flamboyance of his feminine persona is offset by a potent hint of panic behind the performer's eyes. For a drag act, it's exceedingly subtle: Playing the woman who gave birth to him taps into Harold's latent homosexual impulses, but the charade also scares the hell out of the character.
Yet Greenspan's dense and surreal comedy is about much more than a sexually confused son's attempts to come to terms with his overbearing mother. Over the course of five acts, we're treated to episodes of Marivaux-like domestic farce, two play-within-a-play scenes (one a re-enactment of a Greek myth, the other a staged reading along Dantean lines), and multiple monologues dealing with the likes of driving through Los Angeles and the evolution of the microbe. And that's to say nothing of the random appearance of a philosophizing sperm whale several times during the course of the show. In some ways, there's so much going on that it's easy to feel bewildered. (A woman sitting behind me the afternoon I saw the show said loudly to her companion as she was getting up to leave, "Well, John, I have no idea what that was about.")
The play's language is similarly intricate. The critic Charles Isherwood once said of Greenspan, who is a prolific New York actor as well as a dramatist, that "he speaks dialogue as if it's modernist music." Greenspan writes dialogue that way, too. One of the opening monologues, delivered by Harold's wife, Sylvia, sounds like something Gertrude Stein could have written ("Man in the room. It/he in the room. It/he move in my room towards my bed, I oh!, my ankles quivering"). Elsewhere, the language hops lightly among the styles of Ancient Greek drama, SoCal Valley Girl speak, and Borscht Belt comedy routines, to name a few of the play's more pronounced linguistic idioms. The many references to literature and pop culture provide an extra layer of intellectual overstimulation. It's one thing to spot allusions to Moby-Dick and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but it's quite another to figure out what all these allusions signify. (Interestingly enough, Shakespeare's early comedy also inspired the 2002 Edward Albee play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, which, like Greenspan's drama, features a character called Sylvia, a tryst with a farm animal, and the confrontation of various social taboos.)
Does a failure to follow the Kiki-and-Herb-on-steroids romp that is Dead Mother make seeing it a waste of time? Is the effort, as the play's subtitle — and critic Rich — would have it, "all in vain"? Far from it. I rather think that a feeling of bewilderment on the part of the audience is just what Greenspan is aiming for. For those among us able to kick back and just enjoy the ride provided Tony Kelly's bouncy, perceptive direction and the creativity and clarity of Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description's fearless cast, the playwright's searing central message about the problems of patriarchy burns through. While the play starts by blaming the mother figure for the damage she inflicts on her children, we gradually learn that she is less culpable than the father. Greenspan's story scans the history of humanity, and, in particular, the legacy of human waste. It's not for nothing that Harold and Daniel's family business is toilet paper and Uncle Saul and Maxine's is scrap. As a result, we come to see how Shirley's suffering echoes that of female figures through time. Just like the attempts of the patriarchal system to suppress the feminine aspects of culture and society, so the play's dramaturgical complexities attempt to bewilder us into submission. Losing and then hopefully finding one's way through the "smokescreen" is all part of the experience of the play. And the best thing is that you don't have to understand all the literary allusions or even keep up with the finer details of the plot to feel its emotional pull.
I don't suppose the ol' Butcher of Broadway was willing to go down that road back in 1991. Here's to Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description for seeing past the critic's "smokescreen" and breathing new life into an excellent corpse.