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Mom's The Word

May 2, 2007

Past Perfect's most intriguing story line — a mother who hates her kids — gets lost in this unfunny comedy

When women behave badly on stage, more often than not, it's because they don't have children. In Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Martha overcompensates for her childlessness by haranguing her husband, flirting with her guests, and drinking herself into a negligee-wearing stupor. The heroine's obsession with her empty womb in Federico Garcia Lorca's Yerma leads her to commit a horrific crime. Meanwhile, a sex change is more appealing to Lady Macbeth than motherhood.

Dina Dunham, the middle-aged female character in Nicky Silver's new play Past Perfect, on the other hand, represents something even more frightening than a woman without child: a mother who doesn't like her children. Dina is about as maternal as an evil stepmother.

The first glimpse we get of Dina (played by Adrienne Krug) in director John Dixon's world-premiere production for Theatre Rhino is as a dark shadow on the crimson wall above the stage. Breezing in to the lounge Cruella DeVille-gaunt in high heels, Dina pours herself a drink, casts disparaging remarks at her grown-up children Betsy and Seth, and then proceeds to tell her disconsolate progeny that she's leaving. "I'm going to go away, far away, and you won't be seeing me again. Ever," she says in a matter-of-fact voice, as if describing a trip to the mall. Betsy and Seth are appalled. "Don't you love us?" asks Betsy. "It's an awfully abstract question," her mother responds. "Love you? Hate you? I don't think I'm capable, any longer, of that kind of thing ... I do know, I don't like you."

It's a bracing scene, not least for its honesty. For a moment, we feel as perplexed about Dina's behavior as do her children. From desperados like Medea, who exacts a bloody revenge on her ex-husband Jason by murdering her children, to the ghostly maternal figures that waft in and out of Eugene O'Neill's plays, the history of drama is peopled with extreme depictions of motherhood. But Silver's Dina betrays a flash of something different for an essentially tragic character. There's a sitcomlike airiness to her lacksadaisical attitude toward family life. She's the sort of parent who would rather be forgotten than sent cards on Mother's Day — the kind that Albert Camus might have had in mind when he penned the famous line, "Mother died today. Or, maybe yesterday; I can't be sure," at the start of his novel The Stranger.

But Silver's intriguing critique of the idea that mothers, no matter how driven to despair, should be unconditionally loving, doesn't go anywhere. Before long, the play's quirky anti-maternal instinct morphs into ham-fisted melodrama.

Set in the conservatively furnished living room of the Dunham's well-appointed home, the play opens in the middle of a family crisis. Betsy and Seth have returned to the nest to pay their last respects to their father, Philip, who is about to die of cancer. Seth, a bratty, unemployed gay actor, and Betsy, a recovering alcoholic divorcee who's still in love with her abusive ex-husband, aren't in particularly good shape at the start of the action. So when their mother announces her plans to cash out her chips the moment Philip cashes his in and disappear forever, the siblings struggle to make sense of their feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Over the course of two long acts in which the characters confront each other both in real time and in the past, we learn how the sad events of their lives have led to the current mess.

Past Perfect begs comparison with Silver's explosive 2004 play, Beautiful Child (which received its West Coast premiere in a production directed by Dixon at Theatre Rhino in 2005). Both works address the theme of conditional versus unconditional love between parents and their children. Beautiful Child's brisk sense of humor and jaw-dropping narrative about a well-mannered young schoolteacher's return home following the fallout of a romantic relationship with one of his 8-year-old students, leaves us feeling disturbed and deeply moved. But Past Perfect only makes us yearn for the tragicomic perfection of its predecessor.

The comedy and tragedy simply refuse to fuse in this play. The playwright seems to have abandoned all sense of subtlety. He piles so many soap opera-stock woes on the shoulders of his characters — from alcoholism and wife-battering to abortion and rape — that we're rarely surprised or shocked by the turn of events. And Silver's heavy-handed attempts to imbue the darkness with moments of absurdist humor are, generally speaking, awkward and unfunny. Seth's declaration that he'd like to kill his father isn't very comical the first time around. Repeating the desire 10 times doesn't increase the laugh factor. Meanwhile, Philip's "conversations" with his brain tumor are embarrassing enough — he names it Jake, for Chrissakes — without having to sit through a scene in which the critically ill patient encounters the tumor's namesake.

Certain staging decisions only serve to exacerbate the problem. As the only non-Dunham in the play, Seth's boyfriend Charlie, Matt Weimer gives a sensitive, sweet performance. But the character is such a victim that he could use more spunk. A little more aggressiveness from Weimer would help create much-needed sparks. Conversely, Clayton B. Hodges' Seth goes way over the top. Railing at the world like a drag queen who's misplaced her false eyelashes, this Seth is a cliché of an unemployed, gay actor. Even the most interesting scene of the play — the one in which Dina announces her resignation from the shackles of motherhood — doesn't have the impact that it should. Krug's campy delivery undermines the truth behind her intentions, making it hard to believe she'll actually leave. The actor would do a better job of convincing us of her departure if she played the part straight.

By the end of Past Perfect, the playwright seems to have abandoned his interest in mother-child relationships. Dina is often present on stage, but her sphere of influence considerably weakens in favor of more predictable plotlines focusing on Seth's relationship with Charlie and Betsy's with the bottle. Even Jake the tumor seems to have more clout.



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