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Holland Taylor and Buck Henry try their best to rescue this fitfully amusing comedy about a dysfunctional family on New Year's Eve. logo
Holland Taylor in Mother
(© Alison Cartwright)
Lisa Ebersole raises more questions than answers in Mother, a fitfully amusing look at a dysfunctional family's rocky New Year's Eve celebration at a posh resort, now playing at the Wild Project in the East Village.

Joseph (Buck Henry) and his wife Kitty (Holland Taylor) have been bringing their children Jackie (Haskell King) and Kate (played by Ebersole herself) to this haven for WASPS for over 20 years. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, the family's annual tradition has lapsed for three years. It might be because of Kitty's problem with alcohol, or it might be because Kate, who, at 31, still relies on daddy to act as a guarantor for her New York apartment and also for his frequent flyer miles, is adrift in her life and has been unable to make it.

Whichever the reason, the family has congregated in the resort's five-star restaurant -- Sandra Goldmark provides an appropriately garish recreation of Middle American 'luxe' -- and begins squabbling from the get-go. Dad is exasperatingly overbearing, Jackie is snidely controlling, and Kate is simultaneously bitter and insecure. When Kitty finally arrives -- sans shoes because the medicine she takes for headaches makes her forgetful -- she attempts to control the bickering, but rapidly devolves into it herself, calling her husband an "idiot" when he's amused by his son's love affair with a married woman. (The relationship is never explained, but only used as fodder for jokes or fighting.)

Ebersole attempts to inject an air of mystery into the proceedings when a cryptic note arrives at the table. Ultimately, theatergoers come to realize that this is most likely part of a long-running joke the family has with another vacationing clan. Issues of race and WASP-entitlement also come into play with the family's interactions with Chester (played with dignified conviviality by Keith Randolph Smith), an African-American employee at the resort, but as with the practical joke and Kitty's health issues, Ebersole's script flits away from them as the family moves to its next petty spat. Moreover, director Andrew Rosso has staged Mother with an almost lackadaisical hand. He allows the action to unfurl casually and without a sense of tension, which only accentuates the wandering nature of Ebersole's writing.

Taylor, who looks terrific in a tailored cocktail dress from costume designer Becky Lasky, and Henry both do their best to infuse Mother with comedic pungency and drive, but even these two A-list performers can seem as adrift as the material they've been given. And King and Ebersole deliver almost colorless, one-note performances as the younger members of this tiresome and frequently unpleasant group -- which, by the end of the play, still remains a curiously distant cipher.

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