• Capsule Reviews

Mother Play

May 8, 2024

by Ben Togut

Across several decades, a relentless matriarch struggles to navigate her relationship with her two children in Mother Play, now playing at The Hayes Theater. 

As Phyllis, Jessica Lange is mesmerizing. Lange commands the stage in each of her character’s iterations—as an emotionally abusive mother living in poverty, a woman grappling with her children’s queer identities, and a patient at a nursing home trying to cope with her surroundings. As Martha and Carl, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jim Parsons deliver performances that are moving in their own right, Keenan Bolger as a tomboy struggling with her mother’s expectations and Parsons as a free thinker who remains steadfast in his principles and identity.

Under the direction of Tina Landau, the actors deftly navigate the production’s emotional terrain, finding genuine comedy amid the play’s bleak subject matter. Mother Play gets its biggest laughs through physical comedy, such as when Carl teaches Martha how to “walk like man,” parodying a masculine gait and having her imitate him. Projection design by Shawn Duan, which features a dancing chorus of roaches, provides a welcome moment of campiness while illuminating the family’s experience of poverty.

With layered performances that amplify Paula Vogel’s tragicomedy, Mother Play is an exacting portrait of family dynamics gone awry.