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Theatre in Review: The Mother of Invention (Abingdon Theatre Company at June Havoc Theatre)

Concetta Tomei. Photo: Maria Baranova

The mother in James Lecesne's latest dramatic invention is Dottie, a widow, formerly of New Jersey, and, more recently, of Florida. When we meet her, she is sitting on the couch with her daughter, Leanne, talking a blue streak as they go through old family things -- figurines that were a wedding present, for example, and the skirt used for the Christmas tree. Only thing is, Dottie isn't really there. Suffering from early Alzheimer's -- she was found wandering in the local mall, having left her purse behind in a store, unable to identify herself -- she has been shipped off to Tucson, to stay with another daughter, preparatory to being installed in an assisted living facility.

And yet, in some sense, Dottie hasn't left at all; she remains a fairly constant presence as Leanne and her brother, David, pack up her things and plan a tag sale. Dottie knows that her memory is going; in an amusing sequence, she explains how she keeps a list of stock phrases on the wall, next to the telephone, so when one of her children calls and asks her what she's done that day, she'll have something to say. ("Oh, you know. The usual.") But, at least in spectral form, she is articulate and ready to kibitz, especially when it comes to defending her past actions as a mother. For example, there was the time she locked David out of the house, leaving him desolate on the porch. "You mention the word 'porch' and he's like one of The Grimm Brothers," Dottie snaps. "Once there was a boy who got locked out on the porch, blah blah blah. It's his favorite. Proof or something that he had a terrible childhood. "

If Dottie's mind is prone to wandering, you could say the same thing about The Mother of Invention, which brings up all sorts of ideas and situations but never follows through on any of them. Both Leanne and David are dealing with stagnant marriages. Leanne, in the name of attending to Dottie's problems, hasn't been home in months, and doesn't seem too worried about leaving her husband to his own devices. David, who is gay, and is the author of young adult fiction, has written a novella ("It's a novel," he insists wearily, contradicting the cover copy) with gratingly (for his family) autobiographical aspects. There's a fair amount of grumbling about it -- Leanne, in particular, is miffed about having been made into a lesbian -- but this never really goes anywhere. The siblings' bickering about the past is standard dysfunctional family stuff, rendered without a sharp comic attack or much emotional investment.

To spice things up, Lecesne introduces a couple of wild card characters. Jane is Dottie's intrusive next-door neighbor, a chatty retiree whose idea of an epithet is "cheese and crackers" and whose obsession with the terrorist color chart -- she hates it when people go out of doors on red days -- plays like an unfunny running gag until, at the last minute, it becomes deadly serious. And then there's Frankie, a slice of South American beefcake whose career as a glorified grave robber, searching for gold and relics, allegedly led him to a lost indigenous Colombian tribe who have dispatched him to warn the world of ecological disaster. To finance this mission, Frankie may or may not have chiseled $10,000 out of Dottie. He insists she volunteered the money; she, of course, is unable to comment. In any case, Frankie has in his possession Dottie's journal, in which, among other things, she admits to committing an indictable offense. He also has more than one connection to Dottie's family -- a fact that, when revealed, causes no end of complications.

This is a lot for any playwright to juggle and, as a result, The Mother of Invention is a wildly uncertain mix of sex comedy, family drama, and oddball spiritual contemplation, which never gels into anything coherent. It doesn't help that we never see Dottie at anything less than her best; she even describes her own episodes of memory loss with total lucidity. This has the effect of lowering the play's stakes, leaving one wondering why it is necessary to move her thousands of miles away from her home.

Nevertheless, The Mother of Invention goes down easy, thanks to Tony Speciale's smooth direction, and the fine cast. Concetta Tomei, who has been away from New York stages for far too long, is a total charmer as Dottie, taking us into her confidence and discussing everything -- her fraught family life, her fading mind -- with a what-can-you-do shrug. She also makes the most of a speech describing the slow, insidious crawl of her disease. ("First, it's just a matter of not remembering which is your house key. No big deal. But then one day you find you can't remember which is your house. And then...then, you can't remember...") James Davis conjures David's exasperation -- especially regarding the time Dottie forgot to tell him that his father had died -- without making him into a nag. It's easy to believe that he and Angela Reed's cagey, super-competent Leanne share a lifetime of memories. If these characters are a little bit dreary, the actors do much to make them engaging. Dan Domingues keeps us guessing about Frankie's real intentions, his good looks and affability proving to be real assets. Isabella Russo, who won such big laughs in School of Rock, is quietly effective as Leanne's young daughter, who sees plenty and is ready to drop a bombshell or two. Dale Soules makes the most of Jane's scene-stealing possibilities, displaying the right way to use a Dammit Doll -- you smash it against any hard object, shouting "Damn it! Damn it" -- and diligently trying to take notes on a conversation taking place offstage; she is also effective in a brief appearance as a bag lady -- in another life, a concert pianist -- who once auditioned for Michel Legrand.

Jo Winiarski's clever conceptual set design surrounds the action with a wall of cardboard boxes -- presumably containing Dottie's possessions -- which is gradually disassembled over the course of the evening. Daisy Long's lighting is attractive when the set's many practical lamps are in use, and occasionally stark and unpleasant when they aren't. Paul Marlow's costumes and Christian Frederickson's sound design are both totally solid.

By the time The Mother of Invention reaches its not really satisfactory ending, one has long since realized that it is a collection of plot points in search of a play. It's as muddled as Dottie's mind, on one of her bad days. -- David Barbour

(10 February 2017)

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