Theatre Review: ‘Mother, May I’ at The Strand Theater Company

The entire cast of ‘Mother, May I.’ Photo by Ken Stanek.

Mother, May I, the new comedy by Dylan Brody and directed by Rain Pryor, at The Strand Theater Company, takes down the parental mantra of, “We just want you to be happy,” and replaces it with the desperate plea, “We just want you to need us.” The play follows the Grunman family over the course of a weekend visit with their children, Danny and Franny (Jon Kevin Lazarus and Jessica Felice), and catalogues the abusive narcissism, neuroses, and filter-failures of their mother, Ellen (Valerie Lash).

…’Mother, May I’ is a lighthearted and enjoyable investigation of the empty nest, and will have audience members nodding in their seats thinking, “Ah, yes. I know someone like that.”

The latter straddles the line between caricature and reality; dressed in a garish outfit, Lash dominates the house like one of Christopher Durang’s manic tyrants who just happened to wander into a Woody Allen script.  Her performance is somewhat uneven but has its funny moments, particularly in her interactions with Daniel’s new girlfriend, Sarah (not “Susan”), played expertly by Caroline Kiebach—the gem of this production.

Jessica Felice as Franny. Photo by Ken Stanek.

Both Ellen and her husband, Paul (Larry Levinson), try to exert control over their grown children in the guise of financial support.  While Franny rejects these offers with disdain, Daniel counters them with deceit (“omission”, as he calls it). Nevertheless, what both children are really after is validation of their professional and romantic choices; Paul is reluctant to acknowledge Daniel’s success on the West Coast, while Ellen can’t (or won’t) even remember that Franny is a lesbian.  Meanwhile, there is a struggle between Daniel and his father over the latter’s learned helplessness in the face of Ellen’s constant belittlement of his own achievements.

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For a show that is deeply preoccupied with writing—both the Grunman’s children are authors and discuss their art at length—the dialogue tends to fall into a back-and-forth of clichés.  Considering that this is a world premiere, the disputes over the advent of cell phones and email come off as dated and irrelevant to the action.  More problematically, the first act is stuffed with exposition and hints toward coming revelations without supplying much dramatic tension.

Valerie Lash as Ellen and Larry Levinson as Paul.
Photo by Ken Stanek.

Fortunately, the second act picks up remarkably, on almost all fronts.  It’s funnier, better acted, and more engaging than its predecessor, and had this reviewer wondering if it could stand alone as a splendid one act.  The twist in the father’s narrative (played beautifully by Levinson and well-supported by the cast) brings the show to an unexpected and welcome climax.The intimate nature of Mother, May I extends to its physical environment; the audience is practically seated in the Grunman’s living room.  This constricted setting, albeit a function of the theatre itself, enhances the production’s sense of enclosure within a smothering family unit.  Director Rain Pryor does a good job managing the sightlines—no small feat in this location—and drawing the audience’s focus across the two playing areas.  The set (Ryan Michael Haase) and lights (Todd Mion) are plausibly naturalistic and, despite some small inconsistencies (e.g. a full bottle of whiskeyand empty glasses), they create a convincing stage picture.Despite its imperfections, Mother, May I is a lighthearted and enjoyable investigation of the empty nest, and will have audience members nodding in their seats thinking, “Ah, yes. I know someone like that.”

Running Time: one hour and forty minutes, with one intermission.

Mother, May I runs through October 12th at Strand Theater Company, 1823 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD  21201.  For information and tickets click here.

About James Miller

James Miller recently graduated from Cornell University with a B.A. in English and Theatre Arts. He studied theatre criticism in London under Matt Wolf, who writes for the International Herald Tribune, Variety, and New York Times. A native of Baltimore, James now lives and works as an actor, playwright, and teaching artist in Washington, DC.