After her debut in 1990 on PBS’s “American Playhouse,” the gorgon mother known as Katharine Gerard is not a character most people would care to revisit, least of all in a full-length Broadway play. But there she is on stage at the Golden Theatre, where Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” opened Monday, now inhabited by Tyne Daly and acting every bit the human refrigerator that the late Sada Thompson presented in that 1990 episode titled “Andre’s Mother.”
Did McNally bring Katharine back just to beat her up again? Maybe. Whatever, this public trashing is a riveting show. Of course, by play’s end Katharine has delivered a couple of bombshells that explain her bitterness, if they don’t exactly absolve her, and Daly gets some of the evening’s biggest laughs without even saying a word.
In McNally’s new play, Katharine returns to Central Park, the scene of a memorial for her only son, Andre, who died of AIDS those many years ago. She says she’s there to give Andre’s diary to his longtime partner, Cal (Frederick Weller). The difference is Cal is now legally married to another man, Will (Bobby Steggert), and they have a son, Bud (Grayson Taylor), and she views the park not from the ground but the couple’s fabulous CPW apartment. Cal’s life is great. Her life still sucks. Who wouldn’t be pissed?
There may be times in “Mothers and Sons” when you wish that neither Cal nor Will would ask their unwanted guest if she’d like a drink or a refill on that Scotch. She was a homophobe back in the 1990s, and time hasn’t taught her anything. The difference, of course, is Cal.
First off, he’s much improved because he’s played by Weller and not Richard Thomas in one of his most treacly performances ever. Cal has finally stopped crying and grown a spine. He is also married to the much younger Will, played with gay (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) ebullience by Steggert. If there’s any way to understand Katharine, it’s to realize how much further evolved Will is on the subject of his sexual orientation than even his husband, 15 years his senior. Director Sheryl Kaller succeeds in keeping the three generations in perfect balance.
Will doesn’t mind telling Katharine that she’s “prickly” after first meeting her. He also doesn’t blink at telling her the details (turkey basters, egg donors, petri dishes, lesbian surrogates) of how Bud was conceived. That’s when “Mothers and Sons” moves just a fraction of an inch in Katharine’s direction: Daly merely sets down her whisky tumbler, and so gets the evening’s most appreciative laughter. In the theater, that’s called having the audience in your corner.