By James Lecesne; Directed by Tony Speciale
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 2.26.17
Abingdon Theatre Company, 312 West 36th Street
by Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti on 2.11.17
Concetta Tomei in The Mother of Invention. Photo by Maria Baranova.
BOTTOM LINE: Reminding us that family is based in the stories we share, The Mother of Invention is an ambitious—if sometimes uneven—look at the aging process, and how one family experiences the effects of Alzheimer’s.
Dottie (Concetta Tomei) has learned to cope. When asked about a day she has forgotten, she relies on handy platitudes to mask the empty memories. When lost in the world outside her Florida home, she laughs the danger off gaily, embracing the adventure. She dances on the edge of oblivion with a wry smile and a sharp tongue. But her children, neurotic David (James Davis) and unhappy Leanne (Angela Reed), don’t see their mother’s attitude as anything other than the musings of a sick woman. Their concerns about her deteriorating mental state have crystallized into a plan to sell her things and send her to a nursing home. In the days leading up to their final decision, they pack boxes with memories while unpacking conflicting stories and assumptions about the history they share.
Directed by Abingdon Theatre Company Artistic Director Tony Speciale, The Mother of Invention is a compelling, sprawling comedy that looks at family secrets with an unflinching gaze. Presenting a rare, well-rounded portrait of Alzheimer’s, the show also touches on themes of morality, sustainability, climate change, and the art of dying. It is a smart if imperfect script, written by James Lecesne, who previously worked with director Speciale on the critically acclaimed Off Broadway show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Their collaborations yield funny, dark, ambitious productions. At times quite funny and unexpected, the script also occasionally veers into the esoteric, and keeps track of some of the many juggled narratives better than others.
The play's characters are crafted with obvious effort invested in their holistic humanity: Leanne struggles with a mid-life crisis but is also cuttingly funny when she navigates a conversation with her anxious brother David about his semi-autobiographical book. In the thoughtfully interactive set design by Jo Winiarski, David and Leanne must get rid of physical and emotional baggage. The Mother of Invention also deserves praise for the nuanced parts it has created for older female actors, particularly avoiding the usual far-away forlornness and ineptitude of a person with Alzheimer’s. Dottie is vibrant and unflinchingly lusts for the world, almost freed by her diminishing memories. Her attitude serves as a reminder that the stories we tell about ourselves serve both as foundation and prison.
The ensemble cast is genuinely talented, led by a spirited Concetta Tomei. Many of Dottie’s lines are presented directly to the audience, rather than in dialogue with any of the other characters, and Tomei seems to enjoy this intimacy. When talking about how she sometimes wanted her children to just disappear, she speaks with a convivial familiarity that evokes knowing sounds of agreement from the house. Davis and Reed, on the other hand, are entrenched in each other, alternatively sparring and supporting, as siblings do. Davis’ performance is physical and broadly comedic—he often seems a bit exasperated by everything that happens to him. Reed’s Leanne is more centered, and comes across as beleaguered by the life she has found herself in.
Leanne's precocious daughter Ryder is played by the talented Isabella Russo, and the mysterious Frankie Rae by Dan Domingues, who with laudable skill makes the most of a part that could easily skew towards a clichéd caricature. Adding to both David and Leanne’s stress is their gun-totting nosy neighbor, Jane (Dale Soules), whose surprising entrance sets the tone for her destructive and clumsy impact in their world. Soules is hugely compelling, finding humor in an absurd obsession with the color-coded terror rating system while also remaining firmly planted in the hard morality lines to which Jane clings. In a single scene late into the show, Soules also gives a delicate portrayal of a former concert pianist Judy whose life has not ended where she hoped it would. Then again, nobody in The Mother of Invention seems to have landed where they expected to.
(The Mother of Invention plays at Abingdon Theatre Company's June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, through February 26, 2017. The running time is two hours with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2:30 and 7:30; and Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $55 and are available at abingdontheatre.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)
The Mother of Invention is by James Lecesne. Directed by Tony Speciale. Assistant Director is Robert Malbrough. Scenic Design is by Jo Winiarski. Costume Design is by Paul Marlow. Lighting Design is by Daisy Long. Sound Design is by Christian Frederickson. Fight Choreographer is Ryan Bourque. Production Manager is Will Jennings. Stage Manager is Deidre Works.
The cast is James Davis, Dan Domingues, Angela Reed, Isabella Russo, Dale Soules and Concetta Tomei.