Monday, February 13, 2017

Review: Verging On Lights Out

By Michael Block

At a certain age, showing signs of forgetfulness is alarming. At the center of James Lecesne's The Mother of Invention, Dottie's signs of Alzheimer's has prompted her children to send her to a nursing home as they can't seem to handle her. But Dottie's journey comes with secrets and revelations from all sides. The Abingdon Theatre Company production is filled with intrigue, explored in the soapiest of ways.
The Mother of Invention is a delicate dance about the fears of forgetting. David and Leanne are siblings eager to pack and sell their mother's belongings after tricking her into a nursing home. The further into the process they go, the more they learn about what lead Dottie into her memory loss and the brazen actions she's recently taken. Despite a brisk running time, James Lecesne packs a whole lot of content into his play. Plot lines and subplots intertwine to tell the story of a family shattered, their acquaintances’ manipulation, and the actions they take to fulfill their own desires. Even with the whacky revelations dropping, Lecesne puts himself into a trap with the dominating storytelling device. The device of Dottie needs a bit more direction and clarification. In part, Lecesne uses her as an omniscient narrator yet she attempts to interact with the action within the scenes as if she may be some spirit haunting her children's consciences. While assisting how she moved through the space could have helped, it all comes down to the text. It changes form causing the confusion to set in. Lecesne's dialogue is quick and accessible, with the occasional awkward response. But what's most striking is when Lecesne ventures into a more poetic realm. The text and plot falter when it gets muddied in metaphor. And it happens often. Especially toward the end.
photo by Maria Baranova
With the play living in a heightened magical realism type world, director Tony Speciale explored what it would be like to go beyond a stereotypical living room play. He brought in hints of slapstick, a wealth of honesty, and a vision that bordered reality. Again, to avoid the banal appearance of a typical house, Speciale asked scenic designer Jo Winiarski to create walls of boxes. And they served as an overlying metaphor. On one hand, as they disappeared, it told the story of Dottie's decaying mind and loss of memories. On the other hand, it was the physical disappearance of Dottie's items. The trouble is how Speciale tried to remove them. Often times it was through transitions. And then randomly David would start pulling boxes away just so he was active in the scene. And it was a jarring moment. Keeping it solely in transitions was the stronger choice as it pulls focus from the text otherwise, as the other conceit was introduced too late. With practical lights aplenty, lighting designer Daisy Long was able to bring a bit of personality into the world.
There was a delicate balance of serious drama and sitcom sensibility explored by the ensemble. The capable ensemble was able to find structure within the oft outrageous scenarios. As siblings David and Leanna, James Davis and Angela Reed were a comical yin and yang. Davis’ high-strung David explored the wide extreme of over-the-top hysterical gay man. He brought the laughs but not the necessarily the sincerity. Reed took a more adult approach as the mother eager for a little bit of fun. As their spunky mother Dottie, Concetta Tomei gave her a bark bigger than her bark. With the device being difficult to pin down, Tomei seemed to float through the world aimlessly at times, to no fault of her own. There's a lot of ambiguity when it comes to Frankie Rey and his exploits and escapades. Dan Doingues seemed to give Frankie Rey a definitive answer as to his true identity. He is most certainly a con man! But the greatest delight in the company was the performance from Dale Soules. As the nosey, paranoid neighbor Jane, Soules brings a lot of animation and character to the stage. As the wise beyond her years Ryder, Isabella Russo was smartly subtlety, defining her depth and range.
James Lecesne's story is easily predictable. Despite that, it's entertaining. The Mother of Invention is compact yet bursting with story frills. And for some, it's a bit too much.