The rather unappealing main character is Kate Griswald (Margaret Whitton), a harried sitcom writer-producer who barks into her cellular phone threats and witticisms on the order of, “Five thousand dollars to paint the set? Who’s painting it, Picasso?”
She’s at first too busy to notice the failing memory of her mother. Selma (Florence Stanley) is a wry Jewish mom of the guilt-dispensing variety, whose endless needling of Kate to perfect her life by finding a good man, having kids, etc., is motivated, we are told early and repeatedly, by the disappointments of Selma’s own life. She had a gift for words that went unexplored when she settled for the role of wife and mother.
Eventually Kate’s father, Jack (Lee Wallace), makes her aware of the seriousness of her mother’s increasing confusion; Kate takes over, finding a doctor who diagnoses Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and offers to enroll Selma in a new experimental drug treatment program.
Dr. Sam (Richard Cox) is handsome and smarmy — he refers to Selma as “a very special lady,” and Kate, the sarcastic sitcom author, doesn’t blanch. But he’s apparently intended to be perceived as likable, as he all too predictably becomes Kate’s love interest.
Meanwhile, Jack, saying he wants to live a full life, not tend to his wife in a nursing home, high-tails it to Florida, where he meets and falls in love with the buxom Lorna (Madeline Miller).
He announces that he’s divorcing Selma and marrying Lorna, and Kate reacts with a typically superficial combination of petulance and punch lines (describing Lorna to sister Gwen, she says, “If she does any jumping jacks she’ll knock herself unconscious”).
Though Vradenburg’s experience as a writer for such shows as “Designing Women” and “Kate and Allie” makes her adept at one-liners, the endless barrage of cracks undermines all attempts at seriousness, and the author invariably goes for the laugh rather than true emotion.
When Selma, who begins to make a miraculous recovery in act two, decides to leave the nursing home and live the rest of her life on her own terms, Dr. Sam speaks to Kate about the importance of research. He tells her that statistics show that one in two children of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease will inherit the illness. Kate snaps, “I feel terrible for Gwen.”
The play’s second act touches on more serious issues — the rights of a patient vs. the value of research, the burden placed on children by their parents’ hopes for them, the dehumanization of people who have lost their ability to communicate — but all unfolds with relentless superficiality.
In a scene more false even than all that has gone before, Selma searches out her old writing professor, now a rich, jaded, Hollywood screenwriter, and instantly an old crush blooms into autumnal love. At the end of their five-minute reunion, they’re dancing in the moonlight.
Only Stanley gives a credible performance, playing against the one-liners she’s given and remaining consistently affecting. And it’s an uphill battle: This is a play that gets big laughs from Selma’s uttering vulgarities.
The rest of the cast plays for easy laughs, particularly Whitton, a more than adept actress who played a memorable comic vamp in the movie “The Secret of My Success”; here, alas, she punches home every crack with grisly gusto.
The fault must be laid at the door of Leonard Nimoy, whose direction displays a heavy hand with characterization that only reinforces the play’s faults.
Set designer Kenneth Foy has done excellent work, using projections to deftly establish the play’s various locales, from Kate’s upscale apartment to the Grand Canyon. Costumes by Gail Cooper-Hecht are sharp, though the highly paid TV executive is the only character to wear the same get-up throughout the evening.
Slated for an April opening on Broadway, “The Apple Doesn’t Fall …” is a much easier fit for a regional theater circuit, where its mixture of sitcomedy and sentiment could wring guffaws and tears from undemanding audiences who miss the glory days of “The Golden Girls.”