By Stanford Friedman
Playwright James Lecesne is eager to please. In The Mother of Invention, he gives us all the elements required for an entertaining evening of theater. There is gunplay, a secret diary, a tryst, gratuitous nudity, a mysterious stranger, dysfunctional siblings, a wacky neighbor and not one, but two, spirit apparitions. Thus, with director Tony Speciale moving things along at a fast clip, there is never a dull moment. But, while there is humor, there is disappointingly little pathos to be found. In a play about moving out and moving on, few of the characters are very moving at all.
When we first meet Dottie (Concetta Tomei), she is a ghost trying to converse with her adult daughter, Leanne (Angela Reed). Semi-aware of her presence, Leanne is busy packing up Dottie’s belongings while bickering with her brother, David (James Davis). We soon learn that Dottie isn’t dead, she has Alzheimer’s disease and has been packed off to an assisted living facility in Tucson. But her spirit comes at us early and often, sometimes speaking directly to the audience, other times trying to teach her kids a thing or two. More tell than show, Dottie talks often about forgetting, but we rarely see her forget. Indeed, she is so specific and at ease, that the moral seems to be that Alzheimer’s ain’t all that bad for the afflicted. When we finally catch up to her corporeal self in Tucson, in a hard to believe run-in with David, she is somewhere between oblivious and surrendering. Ms. Tomei tries to find a sympathetic path for her character but it’s a tricky minefield. Abusive to her children in the past, fragile but abrasive, we never quite warm to her.
Ms. Reed fares well as the daughter trying to hold everything together while her own life is falling apart. She is steely yet understandably desperate. But David is problematic. We hear about his significant other, but are denied any scenes that would give flesh to the relationship. It is also not at all believable when we learn that he is the successful author of five books. The character is neither wise nor especially deep, and Mr. Davis does not help matters by making comic turns out of even his most harrowing moments. He could definitely learn a lesson in understatement from 12-year-old actor Isabella Russo. An original School of Rock cast member, Miss Russo, here, gives a quiet, funny performance as Leanne’s bookish daughter, Ryder. Knowing more than she lets on while fascinating over what she has learned from reading about birds of prey, she offers the most authentically real performance of the night.
Also in the mix is Frankie Rey (a brave Dan Domingues), the apparently pansexual, nature loving grave robber who may or may not be after Dottie’s money. His scenes are so out of whack with the rest of the story that they take on a kind of charming magic realism. And, finally, there is Dottie’s neighbor Jane (veteran character actor Dale Soules) who lives her life according to the now defunct Homeland Security color code warnings, making her not only crazy but also an indicator that little freshening up has been done since this play was workshopped in 2013.
Jo Winiarski’s scenic design gives us walls of disappearing cardboard boxes, and props to Jerry Marsini’s many props, some of which end up tossed toward the audience when on stage interactions get heated. Also, for the record, this is the second play I’ve seen in the past 13 months where a woman suffering from dementia is named Dottie or Dotty (the other being last year’s Dot), which is, really, two times too many.
The Mother of Invention – By James Lecesne; directed by Tony Speciale.
WITH: Concetta Tomei (Dottie), James Davis (David), Dan Domingues (Frankie Rey), Angela Reed (Leanne), Isabella Russo (Ryder) and Dale Soules (Jane/Judy).
Jo Winiarski (Scenic Design), Daisy Long (Lighting Design), Paul Marlow (Costume Design), Christian Frederickson (Sound Design), and Jerry Marsini (Props Design). Deidre Works is Production Stage Manager. The Abingdon Theatre Company at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, abingdontheatre.org, 212-352-3101. Through February 26. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.