You know a dysfunctional family drama is working when you think to yourself “My family is crackers, but they are nothing compared to this brood.” That’s what happens during the second act of Mother, May I, the world premiere production of Dylan Brody’s dramedy presented with neurotic panache by director Rain Pryor at Baltimore’s Strand Theater.
The Strand, a storefront theater in Baltimore’s Station North arts district, is the perfect petite size for this play. The audience is practically in the laps of the Grunman family as they navigate a tense and booby-trapped reunion. Scenic designer Ryan Michael Haase and Miss Pryor have placed the living room set smack-dab in the middle of the space and the dining room set off to one side, so audience members are right in the line of fire when the family starts flinging zingers.
There’s no escape, not for the characters and theater patrons alike. And that is one of the peculiar charms of Mr. Brody’s play, which entertainingly exposes the toxicity of family skeletons left too long rattling in the closet.
The setting is a contemporary East Coast city. Son Daniel Grunman (Jon Kevin Lazarus) returns home for a weekend visit, accompanied by his girlfriend Sarah (Caroline C. Kiebach), who develops TV shows and movies for a major Hollywood studio. Daniel’s parents, Ellen (Valerie Lash) and Paul (Larry Levinson), don’t know much—or really seem to care—about his life and success in Hollywood. They worship at two altars—serious art and NPR. Everything else is just selling out.
Daniel’s sister, Franny (Jessica Felice) is a published writer and a lesbian—two pieces of info that seem to perpetually fly under her parents’ radar. She’s waiting to find out about a book deal, one that will allow her to give up temping for a while.
Franny has a few secrets of her own and outsider Sarah urges Daniel and his sister to come clean, to make Paul and Ellen see them as they truly are today—rather than the dependent and kids their parents have frozen in time. That’s not an easy task given that Paul walks around detached and aesthetically aloof from everything going on around him and Ellen, well, Ellen would give Freud a brain cramp.
She’s the kind of person who fills up and takes over a room—one clever detail to this production is having Miss Lash physically taller than anyone else in the cast. Her long legs and arms and sweeping gestures threaten to knock over the more diminutive members of the family.
But it’s what comes out of her mouth that poses greater danger. Spectacularly self-absorbed and narcissistic, Ellen is one of those people for whom World War II could have broken out in her living room and all she could remember or find remotely interesting about that day is that she had a soft-boiled egg for breakfast.
She blithely belittles anyone daring enough to enter her world—she thinks Sarah processes film instead of holding an executive position at a movie studio and constantly pecks away at her husband’s accomplishments in the art world. Miss Lash excels in conveying the larger than life aspects of Ellen’s overwhelming personality—the nutty stories, the attention-hogging, the knack for making every conversation about her—but also the fierce love and micromanaging of a classic Jewish mother. Of course, this is a Jewish mother who serves latkes with breaded pork chops, but who’s to pass judgment?
It would be easy to be swamped by Ellen and Miss Lash’s energetic portrayal, but the rest of the cast holds their own. Miss Felice’s Franny is a magnetic mixture of snark and long-simmering resentment and Mr. Lazarus starts off as her polar opposite—someone seemingly accepting and blandly genial—but he reveals his aggressions and sore spots as the play goes on. Mr. Levinson is slyly commanding as Paul, someone much like his son who appears to let Ellen’s shenanigans roll off his back, but then he shows glimpses of grit and power when backed up against the wall. Miss Klebach also appeals as the outsider who is diplomatic, but no pushover.
You have to do a little work to get to the good parts of Mother, May I. The brief first act is an elaborate set-up for the fireworks of the better constructed and more involving second half of the play. And, does the playwright assume theatergoers never watch TV, since Paul’s eleventh-hour revelation sounds suspiciously close to a classic “Seinfeld” episode involving the father of George’s finance Susan and some love letters from novelist John Cheever.
Mother, May I by Dylan Brody, Directed by Rain Pryor, Featuring Valerie Lash as Ellen Grunman, Larry Levinson as Paul Grunman, Jon Kevin Lazarus as Daniel Grunman, Jessica Felice as Franny Grunman, and Caroline C Kiebach as Sarah Cannerly. Stage Manager -Christina Cordle, Scenic Designer – Ryan Haase, Lighting Designer – Todd Mion, Graphic Designer – Seth Luzier. Produced by Strand Theater Company. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.