Nancy Franklin, Laurie Williams, Ann Talman,and Alicia Goranson in Cat's Paw(Photo: Paula Court)
Nancy Franklin, Laurie Williams, Ann Talman,
and Alicia Goranson in Cat's Paw
(Photo: Paula Court)
Although Mac Wellman's new play Cat's Paw is only identified on the program cover by that title, the playwright has evidently subtitled his intermissionless, 90-minute four-hander "A Meditation of the Don Juan Theme." Though the subtitle appears nowhere in the program, Wellman has been quoted as saying of his elaboration, "I thought I'd like to do a Don Juan and have no man at all and make it a rule that the women don't even talk about men."

Fair enough. But I defy anyone who hasn't been told about the premise to come to the conclusion that Wellman is probing Don Juan or the Don Juan theme, whatever that is. In fact, I don't even believe that those who are aware of Wellman's goal can truthfully declare that he's realized it. I happen to fall into the latter group, having glanced through a press release which states that the work concerns four women "grappling with the ripple effects of the men in their lives while touring New York City landmarks." And what did that advance knowledge help me notice? That, at the end of one of the play's four scenes, two of the characters sing a few lines of a ditty (music by Cynthia Hopkins) having to do with Don Juan and some stick figures.

If what Wellman claims to be examining remains obscure, does that mean his play doesn't at all succeed? The question recalls the often-mooted theory that, when novelists and dramatists are compelled to write, they don't necessarily know what they're really writing about. In support of that argument, I offer Cat's-Paw as evidence.

Wellman's true subject here is mothers and daughters and the friction that, with only intermittent breaks, marks their relationships. The characters visiting those Manhattan sites--the observation decks of the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers, the topmost gallery in the Statue of Liberty, and a hallway in Manhattan's downtown Federal Superior Court--are Hildegard Bub, Jane Bub, Jo Rudge and Lindsay Rudge. Each mother and daughter are handed a scene in which to square off. Jane and Jo, who are friends, get a third scene. And Hildegard and Lindsay encounter one another for the fourth and final scene, which Jane and Jo eventually join for the play's conciliatory coda.

During these scenes, the mothers and daughters criticize each other's points of view and query each other's behavior. While doing so, they converse in Mac Wellman-ian prose. Those familiar with this playwright's verbally playful pieces know they are typically a heady blend of the non-linear, the menacing and the funny. Wellman's abiding theme is the slippery nature of words, the mercurial nature of expressed thoughts. For Cat's-Paw, he appears to be jimmying his theme to say, "Of course, mothers and daughters don't understand each other. How could they, when they don't speak the same language?"

Sure, it could be said that these women act as they do in response to life in a man's world--e.g., Jane wears mannish clothes, and Hildegard doesn't like it. But, much more immediately, these mothers and daughters are responding to each other, each one of them apparently bent on doing precisely what the other doesn't approve. When Hildegard and Jane tangle atop the Empire State Building, the masculated Jane keeps protesting, "I don't want to talk about Bermuda." Hildegard, maintaining she has no interest in discussing Bermuda, nonetheless brings it up more than once. (All the audience ever learns about Jane and Bermuda is that she once had a fall there. Did she tumble for a Don Juan of a man? Are we supposed to suss that out?) Lindsay, a determined automaton for whom an attaché case is almost an appendage, refuses to abide her mother's conventional ways. Told by Jo to return a roach motel she wants to steal from the Statue of Liberty innards, where she's come upon it, Lindsay yells: "You will pay for this, Mother." It's no coincidence that the strongest bond forged during the action is between Hildegard and Lindsay. They're not related, you see.

While Wellman hits a few bull's-eyes with his man's view of women's family issues , he doesn't get away with a perfect score. At this point in his career, he seems to have lost sight of what has heretofore made his brilliantly compulsive wordplay so strong. Where there used to be a muscularity of language, with Cat's-Paw he seems to have given in to a case of the cutes. Some of his non-sequiturs amuse--e.g., "People talk about love when they mean motor oil." Just as often, however, they are easy evasions. Also, when Lindsay repeatedly says "exactedally" (I think that's what she's saying) and spouts other neologisms, her screwy vocabulary is irritating not as a character trait but as a playwright's lame, running gag.

Because Wellman frequently throws logic around as if it were confetti in his plays, he hands actors immense challenges. Standing but rarely sitting on Kyle Chepulis' forced-perspective, white walk-way and wearing a series of Robin L. Shane's color-coordinated outfits, Nancy Franklin as Hildegard, Ann Talman as Jane, and Laurie Williams as Jo do their talking-while-stalking well. Alicia Goranson makes Lindsay into one of those ambitious young women so focused on where they're headed that they have no time for inflection, just volume: loud, louder and loudest. When Goranson did her Roseanne stints as Becky (now, there was a mother-daughter relationship to conjure with), her wisecracking was at everyone else's high level. Here, she achieves an even more striking comic creation. (Director Daniel Aukin keeps the able actors on the move.)

At one point in the play, it's explained that a cat's paw is either a person used by another person or a knot. Clearly, it's the former definition that Wellman is getting at; he seems eager to assert that people are exploitative. This is true, needless to say, of both men and women. Why place the blame at the feet of Don Juan when there as so many mother-and-daughter Dona Juanitas at large?