Happy Birthday, Mom
nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
August 13, 2010
Happy Birthday, Mom—running until August 19th as part of FringeNYC—sets itself up in its promotional materials as "irreverent and blush-worthy," and is summarized thusly: "Olivia flies home to surprise her mom on her 55th birthday, only to find her waiting for a young man off Craigslist [sic] to come over for sex . . ." Self-conscious edginess can be terribly annoying in the wrong hands, and so it pleases me greatly to report that writer/director Meghan Gambling's play is neither self-consciously edgy nor annoying. It is, indeed, quite enjoyable.
Before a word is even spoken, we are treated to the extremely funny image of Evelyn—the mom of the title—dancing around in a leather mini-skirt to Bonnie Raitt, setting up wine glasses. When a knock comes at the door, she realizes it is not the intended audience of the wine and leather, but her college-age daughter Olivia, who thought it'd be nice to surprise mom with a Law & Order DVD and some mom-and-daughter time. When it comes out that mom has other plans, involving a young man named Thorn who is only a couple years older than Olivia, Olivia is displeased. When Thorn not only arrives but is black, Olivia is even more displeased. And wouldn't you know it, Olivia's brother Tim also thought he'd drop in on mom, with new girlfriend Sarah in tow, who in turn has a very spirited young man named Brent in tow . . .
Gambling's script, while engaging, does have some minor structural problems. It takes its time getting going; the first two scenes, between Olivia and Evelyn and then Olivia and Thorn, are rather long and give Olivia little to do but serve as antagonist. There is also the problem of Evelyn, the play's most fully realized and motivated character, being off stage for the lengthy Olivia/Thorn scene. We leave the theatre not knowing much about the characters other than their resemblance to archetypes (neurotic, disapproving daughter, loud/loutish son, caffeinated comic relief girlfriend, etc) but the play's greatest strength is its concise length, making the narrative more important than the characters.
And, the above criticisms aside, one thing Gambling does magnificently is create a sympathetic lead character, whose desire constitutes the story. Evelyn's in her 50s, she's just been divorced, her kids are (pardon the lack of a better term) assholes, and all she wants to do is have some really good sex with a hot younger guy. As written by Gambling, and as played by a terrific Janice Lynde, Evelyn has the audience completely on her side. She's too polite to just chuck her neurotic chatterbox progeny the hell out of her house, but by the end of the run, an audience member may volunteer.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong, especially Michelle Glavan as the almost impossible Olivia and Kristen Rozanski as brother Tim's reluctant participant girlfriend (Rozanski has a terrific exit speech). John Roderick Davidson does nice work as Thorn, a difficult character to pull off, as he has to embody white Negro panic while still being an actual person; Thorn's clear, urgent desire for Evelyn manages to be at once funny and kind of sweet, a nice balancing act by Davidson. Jason Crumbine and Zack Gold have little to do but be broadly funny, though they do that quite well.
Happy Birthday, Mom is certainly an enjoyable way to spend 55 minutes of one's time. It isn't as shocking as the postcard would have you believe, but not everything has to be shocking. There is a place for pleasant entertainment with a feel-good ending, and those pleasant entertainments should not have to worry about critics being condescending when they use that term. It's not. Being entertained is pleasant, as is Happy Birthday, Mom.