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Tyne and Estelle – Two Grand Dames on Broadway|
by Robert Heide
© May 2014, Robert Heide
Tyne Daly and Estelle Parsons this season on Broadway both play mothers of gay sons. Tyne stars in Terrence McNally’s new play “Mothers and Sons” and Estelle in “The Velocity of Autumn” by Eric Coble. In McNally’s play, the brilliant Tyne Daly, wearing a red dress and a stylized brown wig, almost resembles the character of Maria Callas she played with such intensity in McNally’s Master Class. However here, as Katharine Gerard, the mother of a son named Andre who succumbed to AIDS 25 years ago, she is a far away jump from Madame Callas though in some sense she is equally volcanic and volatile. I should add, that to watch Daly in this play is itself a master class in acting. The character of Cal Porter, a middle aged man who works in ‘high finance’ is played by the gifted Frederick Weller in a quiet understated manner and Bobby Steggert as Will, the younger husband of Cal, is forthright, direct and both ornery and appealing at the same time. To add a sense of fun to this just about perfect marriage is the brighter than bright six-year-old kid who was brought into the world and two father family by Will whose semen was utilized using a surrogate to make it all happen.
This new family lives together in a comfortably upscale Upper West Side apartment with a view of Central Park expertly designed by John Lee Beatty. When Tyne Daly as Katharine arrives at the apartment door at the play’s opening, she is wearing a mink coat she refuses to take off and appears confused. We discover she is there to deliver a diary written by her dead son Andre while he lived with Cal way back years ago. The question of AIDS comes up and she wonders how her son contracted the disease. In the opening scene, tensions mount between Katharine and Cal but he reveals that her son, like many gay men in the 1970s and 1980s was promiscuous. An “open” relationship for gay couples meant sleeping around as opposed to the now lifestyle of commitment and monogamy. Daly’s performance is impeccable and right on target. In fact, in her outrage and confusion, it might be said that she pivots the play and opens it up to real discourse and conversation. When, at play’s end she finds some acceptance of the two husbands whose young son offers her an Oreo cookie and he asks if she might want to become his grandmother.
There is a point in the play when Cal talks about how fantastic Andre was as an actor, especially when he played Hamlet in an open air theater one summer in Washington D.C. As it happened, I myself was in Washington that summer when my play Moon was being presented at the National Cathedral. One night, I went to see the Hamlet referred to in this play acted by the gifted Robert Drivas who had been in many of McNally’s plays and also starred on Broadway in Edward Albee’s “The Man With Three Arms.” It occurred to me while watching “Mothers and Sons” that Robert (Bobby) Drivas had to have been inspiration for this deeply felt and moving play and that the character of Andre had come out of Terrence’s long-term relationship with him. Herein, I feel is the meeting of real life coming together and merging with real and true theater. This is no easy task in playwriting and in a very personal sense, McNally has indeed written an important and profound play and, yes, a door has been opened for men who want to marry men, and for gals who want to tie the knot with gals.
I would like to report the same for “The Velocity of Autumn” starring Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella, but that is not the case. Estelle Parsons, like Tyne Daly, is a top notch Broadway actress and star recently acclaimed when she took over the role of the strident dominating mother in “August: Osage County.” In this new play, Parsons, who herself at age 88 like that other great actress Angela Lansbury seems to embody the Bob Dylan song “Forever Young,” portrays a feeble, demented, crazed, bitter old crone fighting off her two sons who want to cart her off to a nursing home. She has barricaded herself in a room rigged with Molotov cocktails at the top of her Park Slope brownstone and threatens to blow it up. Her younger “more creative” i.e. gay son climbs up a tree and enters through the window. In this two-character play (the other son calls from outside on the cell phone) he tries to persuade his mother to come to her senses, but it seems neither mother nor son can get together in any way. In the end however, despite her dire excruciating pain, she agrees to a visit to, of all places, the Guggenheim Museum even though she can hardly walk. At the curtain call Estelle Parsons jumps on stage with great aplomb and velocity.
Robert Heide is co-author with John Gilman of
“Greenwich Village – A Primo Guide to Shopping,
Eating and Making Merry in True Bohemia”
published by St. Martin’s Press.