Buck Henry and Holland Taylor are good reasons to see “Mother.” Actually, Buck Henry and Holland Taylor are the only reasons to see this mannered comedy. Penned by Lisa Ebersole, who has written herself a role in this production, the play observes an upper-crust family carrying on their traditional ritual of bickering their way through an elegant New Year’s Eve dinner at a staid Southern resort. Henry and Taylor snap at their leaden lines like trophy trout, injecting their Mater and Pater roles with transformative vivacity and humor. But how on earth did the scribe ever land these big fish?
Monotony sets in quickly as the thirtysomething Leroy siblings take their places at a desirable table (well propped for a formal dinner) in the resort dining room and immediately start picking on one another. As played by Haskell King, brother Jackie has an adenoidal voice that feels like sand being rubbed into a tender body part. (Let’s hope it was only assumed for the role.) Ebersole is more of a droner, playing sister Kate with virtually no inflection.
The playwright obviously means to illustrate the ritualistic nature of Jackie and Kate’s tired routine. But it’s no fun sitting through the verbal version of two bored kids pinching and kicking one another under the table, and these thesps failed to catch whatever lifelines helmer Andrew Grosso may have thrown them in rehearsal.
Help arrives when the first grownup shows, in the person of Henry, whose distinguished writing and acting credits include a memorable stint in “Morning’s at Seven.” Joseph Leroy, the patriarch he plays here, is exactly what you’d expect in this social class and setting — a brusque curmudgeon who is used to speaking his mind and ordering people about and doesn’t appear to give much thought to his children. But with his cute scowly-face and fussy little gestures, Henry makes his most banal pronouncements sound funny — even human.
Leroy does seem to love Kitty, his younger, more congenial wife — as do we all, in Taylor’s sparklingly witty perf. Although she’s played any number of beautifully lacquered, emotionally shallow mothers (currently, on “Two and a Half Men”), Taylor has a true gift for getting under the tanned, toned skin of these privileged dames and finding the combination of strength and shrewdness that makes them vital. If she can’t make us like Kitty — whose effusively expressed affection for a supposedly beloved black waiter (impeccably played by Keith Randolph Smith) is so hollow, she mistakes his sister for his wife — Taylor can still make us love her.
This WASP dinner party wouldn’t be all that bad if it were one or two scenes in a developed play — which is exactly what it would amount to in a work by the likes of A.R. Gurney or Tina Howe. The error Ebersole makes is assuming that a plot is not required to sustain the play because the inane table talk of a mildly eccentric family is so infinitely interesting. It isn’t.