The Good Mother
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
November 10, 2012
What would cause a parent to use their child as an excuse for their own bad behavior?
That’s the question Francine Volpe seems to be asking in her promising but unevenly staged drama The Good Mother, a production of The New Group under the direction of Scott Elliott.
Described as a “taut psychological thriller,” The Good Mother follows the attempts of single mother Larissa (Gretchen Mol) to convince a variety of people that her four-year-old uncommunicative autistic daughter was abused – somehow – by her one-time baby sitter. But no one seems to believe her, owing in part to the bad behavior of her youth.
Was her severely autistic daughter actually abused by the gay loner goth baby sitter (Eric Nelsen), who happens to be the son of Larissa’s one-time psychologist (Mark Blum)? Is Larissa trustworthy? Manipulative? Crazy? We don’t really get an answer.
Admittedly, it’s frustrating for those of us conditioned to expect everything wrapped in a little bow. However, it’s more frustrating that any ounce of suspense has been sucked out of the potentially suspenseful play by Elliott’s snail-paced direction, and Mol’s unsteady central performance.
Larissa is a deeply contradictory cipher of a woman, and the fetching actress can’t seem to burrow her way into the character. She starts in one place, and finishes in the exact same spot; even as each scene peels away another layer in Larissa’s past and present. Her Larissa is just this nice mom concerned for her daughter’s well being – except there’s no evidence to back her up.
She is, though, given able support by her fellow cast members, from the believably awkward Nelson, to Darren Goldstein’s gruff truck driver (whom she invites to spend the night) with a vaguely twisted heart, to Alfredo Narciso’s police officer that, years and years ago, could’ve been the one.
It’s the always reliable Blum who walks away with the production, though, giving a tender, moving portrayal as a psychologist for troubled teens who is seeing his life’s work unravel before his eyes with the accusation by a patient of sexual impropriety, along with Larissa’s accusations against his son.
While Volpe’s dialogue doesn’t always ring-true (there’s too much repetition, too many words and phrases that the characters wouldn’t use), it is unquestionably intriguing, and with the right amount of tension, could amount to a real page turner. Unfortunately, Elliott’s staging is completely suspense-free (except for the final few moments), relying way too heavily on Pinteresque silences and pauses where there shouldn’t be any.