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A Mother, A Daughter and A Gun

Olympia Dukakis is a real pistol in Barra Grant's frantic comedy. logo
Olympia Dukakis and Veanne Cox in A Mother, A Daughter, and a Gun
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The great playwright Anton Chekhov once said that if a pistol appears in the first act of a play, it had better be fired before the final curtain. The not-so-great playwright Barra Grant takes this dictum to an extreme in A Mother, A Daughter and A Gun, her frantic comedy at Dodger Stages. No sooner has the show begun than Jessica (Veanne Cox) is putting bullets in her brand-new gun -- and, mere seconds later, she's firing shots at the person who's just walked through her front door.

That person is her mother, Beatrice (Olympia Dukakis). She is not Jessica's intended target -- well, not at that moment anyway. Instead, Jessica was expecting David (Matthew Greer), her errant husband, who's apparently run off with a young temp worker at his office. This has sent the obviously high-strung woman into a state of almost complete mental deterioration. Jessica has even forgotten that she's invited 20 total strangers over to her apartment that night to share the ham she won in a contest (and which she's already thrown out because it didn't fit into the refrigerator). As we find out over the course of the next two hours, few would blame Jessica for attempted matricide. Beatrice is a hyper-critical, extremely manipulative woman and definitely to blame for her daughter's low self-esteem, poor choice in men, even her lack of fondness for lipstick and mascara.

How much of this is based on Grant's relationship with her real-life mother, former Miss America Bess Myerson, is anyone's guess, but some sections of A Mother, A Daughter and A Gun do have an air of authenticity. This is especially true of the scenes wherein Grant seriously explores the dynamic of the mother-daughter relationship, which is especially complex when the mother has very little in the way of true maternal instincts. Yet much of the play doesn't ring true -- e.g., the sheer number of times that the gun goes off and no one calls the police. (Even in New York, someone would dial 911!) Indeed, the major shortcoming of the writing is that Grant tries to traverse way too many territories, from slapdash farce to Neil Simonland (she pays particular homage to Simon's Plaza Suite) to bittersweet drama. The play has its share of laughs, but it might have been better if the author had interjected a little more reality into certain moments.

Grant should thank her lucky stars that Dukakis is on board for this roller-coaster ride. While the Oscar-winning actress pushes a bit hard at the beginning of the play, she eventually settles into a masterful portrayal of Beatrice, an unhappy woman who has managed to practically destroy her daughter's life. Despite Beatrice's many horrible actions over the years -- she is revealed to have been just a step away from Medea at one point -- the character is not entirely unsympathetic thanks to Dukakis's pitch-perfect choices.

Over the past decade, Cox has proved that she can do hysteria (Amy in Company) and deadpan sarcasm (June in Last Easter) with equal dexterity, so it's not surprising that director Jonathan Lynn has asked her to do both in almost equal measure here. But instructing any actress -- even one as brilliant as Cox -- to constantly veer between these attitudes like a pinball is ill-advised. Jessica's moments of clarity seem to evaporate in the ether for no discernible reason, which is a shame, because they provide Cox with her strongest acting opportunities. Given that the stage directions nowhere read "Jessica mugs uncontrollably," it must be Lynn's fault that Cox sometimes does just that.

Lynn is also partly to blame for the performances of the supporting cast members, who -- with the exception of the always reliable George S. Irving as Alvin, Beatrice's husband and Jessica's father -- fall far behind as they try to keep up with Dukakis. Of course, it's not exactly a fair race.

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