nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 7, 2005
Sandy is 38, Jewish, about to lose her job, and desperately trying to get her boyfriend, Richard, to divorce his wife and marry her. Howie, her eldest brother, is a good-natured but not-too-bright fellow under the thumb of his own wife, Florence. Dave, the middle brother, is a repressed, buttoned-up college professor married to a chirpy, perpetual psychology student named Chris. Steve, the youngest brother, is an osteopath in an open marriage with a Catholic wife in a California whose values and lifestyle he has wholeheartedly embraced. On a Thursday between Christmas and New Year's, these four siblings reunite—for the first time in years—to visit their mother, Ethel, who is in a hospital following a bad auto accident. Together, they decide to take her off life support, and then they head to her modest South Florida condo to await news from the doctor. It comes soon afterward, and everyone says:
For Ethel was a controlling, manipulative, uncommunicative tyrant, not much beloved by her scrappy, dysfunctional family. And Bye, Mom!, the first work of theatre by longtime gardening book author Susan Austin Roth, is a devilishly irreverent little comedy about grieving and getting on with life. A little bit sitcommy, a little bit over-the-top, and not nearly so "dark" or "nasty" as its author seems to think, it's a pleasing and entertaining work and a pretty impressive playwriting debut. Under Yanna Kroyt Brandt's fast-paced direction, it's the occasion for some tour de force performances by a company of experienced actors who seem to be having as much of a ball as the audience.
Catherine Curtin, whom I have only ever seen in heavy dramas, has the central role of Sandy; she's hilarious yet believable throughout, whether trading insults with her brothers, manipulating her stolid accountant boyfriend Richard, or—most memorably—warding off her mother's best pal Teddy's efforts to steal a TV set from the less-than-impressive estate. Stephen Bradbury is fine as Richard, a man who has his work cut out for him, apparently really in love with this bundle of neuroses and willing to step up to the plate and marry her—pending favorable financial conditions, that is.
Michael Gnat and Lucy McMichael feel exactly like a married couple as Dave and Chris, and both have telling moments when their characters let loose with what's really happening inside their heads, with results that are at once funny and touching. Robert Heller, as older brother Howie, is mostly a sweetly quiet presence, until he finally has something to get off his chest at the play's climax, and then he's authentically affecting. Norma Rockwood, as the grasping little old neighbor lady Teddy, is a hoot.
But it's Rob Sedgwick who's been assigned the most colorful role in Bye, Mom!, and he runs with it like a pro. His Steve is a bundle of eccentric nuttiness, wavering from shaky, frenetic insecurity to drug-and-drink-addled exuberance to the cool, detached, centeredness to which he aspires but only very seldom achieves. Sedgwick's performance brings to mind the classic antic hippie characters inhabited by Dick Shawn in his prime (It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; The Producers). It's a delight to watch.
Roth's plotting is not as strong as her characterizations—a surprising family secret that is revealed in Act Two, Scene One feels like it's included only because Roth thinks she's supposed to have one. She should have more confidence in her (considerable) ability to conjure an almost Chekhovian picture of the absurd collision of a family whose deep and unshakable love for one another makes them weirdly functional against the odds. By the end of Bye, Mom!, we've come to believe in and like her exaggerated creations, and are rooting for their happiness. That's a fine accomplishment for any mother.