Father’s Day is coming up, but I‘ve seen a couple of plays about mothers and sons recently. One of them was City of Conversation at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center. Jan Maxwell stars as Hester Ferris, a Washington, DC power hostess who’s upset by the decline in civility and the dinner party as a place to bridge political differences.
The play, by Anthony Giardino, does reflect a sad trend. Jan Maxwell is compelling as a passionate liberal, but her son, a new breed of conservative, played by Michael Simpson, isn’t her match onstage. (Kristen Bush, as her daughter-in-law, is much stronger.) Ultimately, Hester cares more about politics than people, and City of Conversation becomes a salon of speechifying.
Terence McNally’s play, Mothers and Sons, at the Golden Theatre, is more nuanced. Tyne Daly plays Catherine, a mother who lost her son to AIDS. Twenty years later she comes to New York City to call on her son’s former lover, Cal, who’s now living in a beautiful Upper West Side apartment, married to another man, Will, and the father of a 6 year old son.
She can’t forgive Cal for finding happiness and can’t accept the changes in society toward homosexuals. This could’ve been treated schematically, like City of Conversation, but the way it’s written and acted makes it profoundly human. Terence McNally has chronicled gay life in NYC before, but perhaps never with more compassion and humor at the same time. Tyne Daly embodies a woman who can’t open her heart and is doomed to bitterness, yet it’s a three-dimensional performance. Frederick Weller as Cal and Bobby Steggert as Will stand up to her with power and poignancy. They defend the life they have chosen, knowing that their choices wouldn’t have been possible two decades ago. While she mourns the loss of her son, they mourn the loss of a generation of gay men, something that shouldn’t be forgotten.