Any play that puts Olympia Dukakis, Veanne Cox and George S. Irving together onstage can’t be all bad. As mother, daughter and dad in a prototypically dysfunctional family, these fully vetted and seasoned pros not only nail their laughs, they also make the slackers look good. But while their performances could serve as a valuable master class in the principles of comic acting, they can’t save Barra Grant’s domestic sitcom, “A Mother, a Daughter and a Gun,” from what ails it: familiarity, predictability and a made-for-TV sensibility that sinks it like a stone.
Cox (“Caroline, or Change”) puts her expressive body to work as Jess, a 30ish New Yorker whose husband, David (Matthew Greer), has dumped her for a younger woman. With her caved-in chest and hunched shoulders, Cox is the picture of misery as she lets herself in to the couple’s indifferently furnished apartment, takes a shiny gun from a brown paper bag and addresses herself to the sure-fire comic business of learning how to work the thing.
Jess’ intended target is David; but when her mother, Beatrice (Dukakis), makes a surprise entrance, the gun goes off and Beatrice takes a pratfall. The look on Dukakis’ face is priceless, as is her comeback — “I thought you were going to go easy on the medication” — and the first point goes to ball-busting mom.
Preliminaries over, the women get into battle position for what is obviously a long-standing mother-daughter conflict over how Jess should be leading her life. The timing is neat and the moves are funny under Jonathan Lynn’s savvy helming, as Beatrice proceeds to berate Jess over the marital breakup (“So, what did you do to drive him away?”), criticize her fashion sense (“This is an outfit?”) and organize a party for her (“You have a problem, I’m here to solve”).
It’s an education to watch Dukakis and Cox joust and jab at one another’s weak spots, but no matter how pointed the sparring gets, it sticks to the obvious issues of maternal envy, dissatisfaction and daughterly resentment. And despite spirited turns from the assorted guests at Jess’ disastrous party, nothing tangible emerges to advance the stalled plot until Irving shows up as Jess’ long-suffering father, Alvin, to take his daughter’s side and his wife’s abuse.
Irving has perfected that jowly, hangdog look of henpecked husbands in a state of perpetual misery, and he works it here to maximum effect. But the character is a stereotype, and although Alvin gets a chance to wax romantic about a long-ago affair, poor dad doesn’t wear well.
Scribe Grant (whose screen and TV credits include “Slow Dancing in the Big City”) uses the gun that looms in the title — and even more conspicuously on the stage — to supply the big bangs that her characters and plot can’t deliver. But the gun is purely a prop, because this isn’t a play that wants to go over the dramatic top in any meaningful way. Like a sitcom, it just wants to get your attention with a few rude noises … and keep on talking.