Review: In Let’s Call Her Patty, Rhea Perlman Reforms Her Jewish Mothering 

Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer and Arielle Goldman join Perlman in the world premiere of Zarina Shea’s new play at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater.

Rhea Perlman in Let’s Call Her Patty at LCT3.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

A New York City Jewess named Sammy (Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer) narrates the story of her aunt Patty. Well, Let’s Call Her Patty, as playwright Zarina Shea’s title instructs. After all, specifics are irrelevant when you’re talking about a character so exactingly cut from the cloth of the Upper West Side, a neighborhood and culture the LCT3 programmers and audiences know a thing or two about. From the hollering to a silent husband who’s always in the next room, to the frenetic and incessant onion chopping, Patty is the woman who’s constantly tinkering in the name of love. And who better to embody this heimish creature than Rhea Perlman, whose iconic speaking voice is its own exercise in sense memory?

The fun of Shea’s play is in the details that make Patty specific within her broad sketch of a Jewish matriarch cooped up in a sparingly appointed multi-million-dollar apartment (set designer Kristen Robinson hangs a single Monet print to insinuate the expected level of arts patronage from someone like Patty). These particulars, however, are relegated to the play’s moment-to-moment comedic beats. When Shea steps back to tell an earnest story about a mother learning to loosen her grip on a daughter gone adrift, her strokes become broad and flimsy.

With only slightly more playing time than a single episode of television (the show runs a tight 70 minutes and could get people home before the sun goes down), Let’s Call Her Patty speeds us through Patty’s response to the discovery that her adult daughter Cecile — an accomplished artist played with raw fragility by Arielle Goldman — is struggling with a drug addiction. Patty’s niece Sammy, who lost her mother in early childhood and has assumed a daughterly role in Patty’s life, alternates as her aunt’s loving life coach and our third-party storyteller (Kritzer is excellent as our confident and comforting tour guide).

LCT3PATTY #830 Arielle Goldman and Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer. Credit to Jeremy Daniel
Arielle Goldman and Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer in a scene from Let’s Call Her Patty
(© Jeremy Daniel)

As narrator, Sammy observes Patty’s moves like a Manhattan anthropologist: How does a Jewish mother who tends toward shame and guilt handle the news that her daughter has taken a wrong turn in life? And more importantly, how does a pathological fixer arrive at an understanding that some things cannot be fixed? They’re interesting questions, but Shea’s answers land in the shallow end of the self-help pool. Instead of deepening our understanding of this equal-parts familiar and inscrutable character, all we get is a tired aphorism about eating an elephant one bite at a time. Meanwhile, Goldman leads an entirely different play stage right, monologuing in an ethereal tone about prayer under Oliver Wason’s soft lighting, but offering no contextual information to fill out what could have been a revealing complement to her mother’s story.

Despite both of their teasing trails of breadcrumbs, neither Sammy nor Cecile have much of an arc at all. Instead, Let’s Call Her Patty insists on being a story about Patty and Patty alone — a choice that hits a dead end when we realize how even Perlman’s dominant stage presence and talents as a character actor can’t overcome how passive Patty is as a protagonist. Patty does not act, but rather reacts to the people that orbit around her. And there’s only so much director Margot Bordelon can do to keep her story from succumbing to inertia.

With her easy New York cadence, Perlman feels most alive in her bantering scenes with Kritzer. The declining health of Sammy’s mother-in-law turns into the play’s funniest through line, and as experts in this shade of humor, Perlman and Kritzer bring out the best in each other’s performances. It makes you wonder why a play that’s at such ease with dark comedy struggles so much with tragedy, its next-door neighbor.   

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Let’s Call Her Patty

Closed: August 27, 2023