Review: In ‘Mother Play,’ Paula Vogel Unboxes a Family Story

In the first scene of “Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions,” Paula Vogel’s antic, mournful new drama, Martha, a character modeled on the playwright, offers a version of Ecclesiastes.

“There is a season for packing,” Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger) says as she slits open a cardboard box. “And a season for unpacking.”

Vogel, 72, has spent the majority of her career unpacking. Her work is not strictly autobiographical, but as in the plays of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee or Adrienne Kennedy, she has a canny way of rearranging the emotional furniture of her lived experience into tragicomedy.

Here, at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater, that furniture includes a mother, Phyllis (Jessica Lange), and a brother, Carl (Jim Parsons), named for Vogel’s own family. The story begins in 1964 with the family moving into a basement apartment in a Washington, D.C., suburb; Carl is 14, Martha 12. Phyllis is in her mid 30s, barely treading water after a foundered marriage. At times, when she can pry her hands from a gin bottle, she clings to her children as if they are life rafts. Otherwise, she regards them as jetsam. Phyllis, we learn, never wanted to be a mother.

On finding herself pregnant: “I thought: Other women aren’t mother material, but they get through it. Just hang on, Phyllis, hang on. But it is never over. It’s a life sentence.” How’s that for a bedtime story?

As a single working mother, Phyllis can afford only custodial apartments, and those early evictions come when she complains too loudly about the roaches and maggots. The vermin are brought to life, extravagantly, in Shawn Duan’s projections. And David Zinn’s flexible set nimbly conveys each new abode. The later, more fraught expulsions come when Phyllis rejects first Carl, who comes out as gay in college, and then later Martha, who is also queer.

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