Mothers and Sons at Theatre Memphis 

Karen Mason Riss does her thing.

Jack Yates

Karen Mason Riss does her thing.

Cal and Will live in an enormous, gorgeously appointed, clearly expensive apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They've got nice things and a view of the Metropolitan Opera. They are married with a son named Bud, and they live like a 1950s-era sitcom couple where the breadwinner (Cal) has a lucrative job doing something so boring his young, creatively minded spouse doesn't pretend to understand. They are perfect parents who sometimes squabble over perfect things like who bought Bud the wrong bubble bath or why it's better to say "Inuit" than "Eskimo."

This is the enviable picture into which Karen Mason Riss' Katherine enters, overflowing with rancor and wearing her fur coat like armor. Her actor son Andre and Cal (Gregory Alexander) were a couple in the early 1990s, when life was not quite so lush, and AIDS — the disease that killed her son — was still decimating the gay community. It's the first time she and Cal have seen each other since the funeral, and the protracted icy silence that begins Mothers and Sons, playwright Terrence McNally's flawed experiment in grief nostalgia, lets audiences know on the front end that they're in for a long, uncomfortable 90 minutes.

By contrast, Katherine has lost everything. Her son left her to pursue a lifestyle she never condoned or attempted to understand. He moved in with Cal, and now he's dead. Her husband is also dead, though he took his time getting that way. She's got some money but no family or friends, and back home in Dallas — a city she seems to loathe — she finds herself riding the bus with "the help." She's on her way to Europe to get away for a spell and has paid a surprise visit to Cal for reasons that are never entirely clear. Katherine is, rather ham-fistedly, identified early on as a stand-in for Shakespeare's Hamlet. She's an occasionally suicidal would-be avenger, more angry than mad, and obsessed with the idea that she can find out who infected her boy with HIV and — something. Otherwise it's difficult to understand why this unpleasant woman showed up on Cal's doorstep. It's even harder to understand why she didn't leave — or wasn't asked to leave — five minutes later.

Director Jerry Chipman has brought together a strong creative team and installed a handsome, technically fine production of Mothers and Sons on Theatre Memphis' NextStage. Jack Yates' design is lush, and the talent is sharp and polished. Many ideas, presented in the awkward script like items to be checked off a to-do list, seem like they should be interesting enough to build a play around. Unfortunately, these ideas are only hissed, snapped, or delivered with polite restraint but never explored in a parlor game so contrived no drama can take root.

Every review I've ever written has started with me sitting down in front of the keyboard and asking myself the same three questions:

1) What was the play supposed to do?

2) Did it do the things it was supposed to do?

3) Did it do the things it was supposed to do in an interesting way?

Objectivity can be elusive, but those questions help to keep me honest and make these review columns about something other than what I do and don't like. But every now and then a play like Mothers and Sons comes along and throws a monkey wrench into the process. Because after much consideration and considerable reading, I still don't know what the playwright wants his play to do. Is Mothers and Sons just a portrait of a hater wallowing in the minky hell she deserves? Is it like going through a box of photos from the good old days when we all looked so young and an entire generation was dying? Is living well the best revenger's tragedy?

Did I mention how badly written the kid's part is? Fictional children who only say perfectly precious things like, "You can be my grandmother," while blinking their big doe eyes and glowing radiantly, are creepier than clowns.

Mothers and Sons has its moments, and any opportunity to watch Riss do her thing is worth considering.

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