Stephen Svoboda's somewhat formulaic new musical about his own family, "Reconstructing Mama," occasionally does the trick.
Since Edward Albee, Richard Greenberg and Christopher Durang have spent decades mining the seam, it’s a struggle to find something new and interesting to say about the struggles of poorly parented WASPs. Still, Stephen Svoboda’s somewhat formulaic new musical about his own family, “Reconstructing Mama,” occasionally does the trick. The schmaltzy themes and glib self-help malarkey go down smoother with well-drawn portraits of the cracked Svoboda siblings and their crazy matriarch to appropriately embitter the overly sweet concoction.
“Reconstructing Mama” doesn’t always ask interesting questions, but at least twice, it stumbles across a couple of real stumpers: “How do I deal with my mother, who was not merely mean but legitimately crazy?” ranks first, with “Is it love if it really messes you up?” a close second.
The play opens with a jaunty number about the mother in question, introducing each of the four children who were “named after myths.” David is named after the kid who “beat up the giant,” Daphne after the goddess who “beat off Apollo,” and so on (Taylor is named after his absent father’s legendary golf clubs). As a variety of puppets (both sock and silhouette) help with the initial exposition, we learn that Mama Svoboda has just died by her own hand, prompting a reunion of folks doing their best to forget they’re related.
Since her brothers and sisters have been away, the unremittingly bitchy Daphne (Ariana Shore) has commandeered the Svoboda homestead. Shore is the show’s greatest, most fearless asset — her Daphne is a control freak, wielding her pregnancy like a mallet during an especially brutal game of whack-a-mole. Every objection her helpless siblings mutter against the new domestic totalitarianism is either ignored or bonked back into its hole with histrionic ferocity.
In some ways, it’s a pity Daphne is merely a supporting character to the earnest David (Jonathan White), whose less interesting quest for closure lies at the center of the show. David’s best moments come when he has to repeat or relive a story about Mom’s frequently unintentional cruelty. Apparently, Mom believed the CIA was out to get her (horribly, this manifests itself when he comes out of the closet), that dolphins are the highest form of human life, and that David’s swim coach was God, or maybe Jesus. It’s easy to see the toll her attentions have taken on her son.
Lauren Connolly has fun as David’s shrewd, self-destructive sister Sammy (short for Samson), waving the long strand of her bright red bangs around the stage like the proverbial freak flag. Admittedly, she doesn’t have much to do — her arc takes place in a few lines, and her function seems to be mostly as sounding board to David.
David’s relationship with Jamie (Danny Marr), his brother’s angelic caddie, provides both a touching romantic interlude and the show’s greatest weakness. Though it’s a relief to see the always-nervous David with a gentle caretaker, the younger Jamie lacks the welcome quirks and flaws that make Daphne and Sammy so much fun to watch. In a word, he’s not real.
It sounds curmudgeonly, but “Reconstructing Mama” could do with less upbeat catharsis. The wounds David’s mother has inflicted upon her children clearly cut too deep to heal easily, and though Svoboda bombards us with scene after scene of his characters coming to terms with their childhoods, you never really believe him. David pours water symbolizing his mother’s personality into a pitcher; David and his sister practice spinning to remember their mother’s obsession with it — all the “fixes” for heartache that Svoboda and Williams posit seem a little, well, silly.
Credit the two writers (N. David Williams co-wrote lyrics and penned the Sondheim-lite music) with asking intriguing questions, but take away points for the answers they claim to have found.