More than a few of the brightest stars in the Broadway firmament came out on Monday night to celebrate the opening of Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,” which opened not-incidentally on the 50-year anniversary of the playwright’s debut at the Royale (now Bernard B. Jacobs) Theater.
That said, the 75-year-old McNally grinned tooth to tooth as he held the two debuts alongside one another, telling a packed house: “We didn’t get it right the first time.” Amidst a surging miasma of friends at a reception afterwards, he elaborated with a shrug: “My first play got terrible reviews.”
SEE ALSO: Broadway Review: ‘Mothers and Sons’
McNally was more sanguine about the newest production — directed by Sheryl Kaller, starring Tyne Daly as Kathryn, a 60-something mother who revisits NYC on a whim and catches up with the former lover of her son, who died an AIDS victim 20 years prior. “It just comes out the way it comes out, like life. You don’t know if you’re gonna get a laugh, or if a bus is gonna run you down.”
Daly’s role — equal parts traditional Texan matriarch and repressed, self-punishing spinster — was written specifically for the actress, whose powerhouse performance kept Sardi’s abuzz late into the night. McNally landed his leading lady both the crispest zingers and the sorriest depths of despair.
He explained: “You don’t worry about laughs when you’re writing it; you hope there’s some humor, but they’re not jokes. There are no jokes in the play.”
Star Bobby Steggert capped the performance with a comment that this was another breakthrough altogether — the first time a gay married couple appeared in a Broadway play — and ended asking the audience to donate spare cash to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
“This play has brought me so much joy,” Steggert offered, of his role as the bereaved ex’s new husband. “He wrote this part for me, and that’s the biggest privilege. It’s a constant negotiation between the director and the cast, but Terrence loves actors. We were changing lines up as late as last week.”
Frederick Weller, who plays Daly’s son’s former flame, added: “I didn’t live through the AIDS crisis. I’ve lived with some people, worked with some people who were in the trenches, but no one who was like the love of my life. So it’s helpful to think, “there’s someone in the audience, right now, who went through this.”
Daly downplayed intimations of autobiography in the play’s text. “Who doesn’t use themselves? Actors, painters, artists use themselves…. There’s no women ‘like’ Kathryn, there’s only Kathryn. The more individual she is, the more universal she becomes.”
In the Broadway tradition, first-nighters maintained their balance on a highbeam between crying and chortling. “It’s supposed to be a roller-coaster,” Daly explained. “That’s the rule: the play’s no good unless you laugh and cry. Talk to Bill Shakespeare.”