A theatergoer might be forgiven the conviction that if Dr. Seuss came to town this season, he’d prefer to bypass the expensive Broadway show bearing his name and head down to the Soho Rep to take in “Cat’s Paw,” Mac Wellman’s playful metaphoric collage centering around two pairs of fractious mothers and daughters. The quartet of amiably dissonant women tours several New York landmarks, exchanging odd observations about roach motels, Great Aunt Dolly and the way the wind troubles the water as New York’s rivers merge with the Atlantic. Wellman’s spirit is Seussian, his lines a combination of joss stick and jeu d’esprit — which is to say there’s much inspired nonsense surrounding a geological crust of sense in “Cat’s Paw.”
Far from an entertainment for the wee ones, the play aims unapologetically at adults — who better to savor the internal rhymes, offbeat cadences and juxtapositions that make Wellman’s “stage blood and Bermuda” an enticing, if somewhat elusive, dish.
And speaking of the tropics, a repeated invocation of “Bermuda” becomes one of Nancy Franklin’s running gags as weary-eyed matriarch Hildegard Bub. She can’t resist bringing it up. Just the merest mention of it, and her tall, poised daughter, Jane (Laurie Williams), winces like a paramecium poked with a prod.
Wellman has something up his sleeve, using the tropical place name to suggest obscure assignations, unmentionable taboos and the secrets that a daughter tries to hide from her hawk-eyed Mom. Beyond that, “Bermuda” is a kind of floating signifier. The characters themselves can’t decide if it’s an ominous black hole or just a name for an onion and a pair of baggy shorts.
Language is a funny animal, Wellman seems to be saying. He elicits giggles by poaching his nouns right before our eyes, stealing them right out from under their etymological precedents and rendering their meanings entirely fluid. “Did that wiggle your handle?” asks one Wellmanian to another. Answer: “It did diddle it.”
Onstage, this is more amusing than it sounds. “Cat’s Paw” toys with the sorts of conundrums that could inspire a fallout of dense French literary theory, but the playwright manages to embody them in characters who hold our attention.
“I have been observing the small motions of your soul for all these years,” Franklin’s Hildegard tells her daughter during the opening tableau of “Cat’s Paw,” as they stand at the top of the Empire State Building. Anger and bristling recognition connect the two women — an authentic tapestry of emotion among daughters and mothers. Their words and images may be odd, but there’s something underneath it that we recognize right off.
Dispensing with conventional plot, Wellman explores the difficulties between his two mother-daughter pairs, using his language as a compass. We see the two pairs of women dodging and parrying each other’s blows as they check out various New York tourist attractions such as the torch of the Statue of Liberty or the top of the Twin Towers. Men are conspicuously absent from “Cat’s Paw,” and romance is far from the minds and tongues of the Wellman women. Jo sneers, “People talk about love when they mean motor oil. … People talk about love when what they mean is closer to a hideous insidious itch.”
Even more impatient is the adolescent Lindsay (Alicia Goranson), a precocious prep school girl who views her mother’s effusions with contempt. The girl is anti-romanticism personified. She likes her bedtime stories ripped from the snarliest pages of tabloid journalism and enjoys contemplating the significance of roach motels.
Wellman moves the foursome along from scene to scene, hatching a few schemes as the action migrates from one New York attraction to the next. In the process, the Statue of Liberty sprains her wrist, and one of the women comes up on criminal charges. The text retains its verbal ingenuity to the last, but it seems to lose its structural tightness, becoming a bit diffuse in its final argument about storytelling between Lindsay and Hildegard.
As an experimentalist, Wellman has ample gifts. “Cat’s Paw” is rich with odd fancy and arcane imagery, but it doesn’t have the tensile cohesion that a piece like this ultimately needs. Nonetheless, Wellman’s writing is often exhilarating in its sheer intellectual energy. His mulish mothers and obstinate daughters are worth listening to, even at their most exasperating.