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Theatre in Review: Notes on My Mother's Decline (The Play Company/Next Door at NYTW)

Caroline Lagerfelt. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Seeing Caroline Lagerfelt onstage again feels like catching up with an old friend. A ubiquitous presence in New York theatres during the 1980s and '90s, she brought her distinctive look (that Meissen china complexion, especially), vivacious personality, and incisive line readings to a variety of plays, excelling especially in the works of British playwrights. I have always insisted that she and the actor John Vickery, the replacement leads in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, made a better argument for the play than did the original stars.

Lagerfelt turn ups occasionally these days but, more recently, her time has been taken up with television gigs, so it's a treat to see her live again in Andy Bragen's Notes on My Mother's Decline, a two-part invention about the loss of a parent, set in the same neighborhood where it is being staged. Lagerfelt's character is an aging, ailing East Village matron who -- thanks to the ravages of time, illness, and her own self-indulgence -- increasingly lives in bed, reading, keeping in touch with the outside world via telephone while smoking pack after pack of cigarettes and drinking gallons of coffee from a Mason jar. Lively, eccentric, and long accustomed to existing at the center of attention, her dialogue is a deluge of conversation stoppers. "My first husband, Charles, now he liked to drink," she says. "We were at a Christmas party, he and I and Ray and Mara, when he set the ceiling on fire." Recalling the day when her second husband requested permission to have a little something on the side, she says, "I was stunned," adding of the lady in question, "she went around with no underwear." Remembering her tumultuous youth, she says, "Daddy wasn't a violent drunk. Except for once, when he hit my sister, Charlotte, and he paid dear for that. Mother grabbed a pistol and took aim at him. She was at the head of the stairs, and he was at the foot. Mother was an excellent shot, and she could have killed him, but she changed her mind last minute and shot him in the shoulder. Poor Katherine, on the steps in-between, nearly got winged." (By the way, we never learn who any of these named people are; they're just part of her constant flow of anecdotes.)

Even in the present day, listening to her gossip about the theatre, denouncing the Times, praising the Wall Street Journal theatre critic Terry Teachout, and contemptuously dismissing the playwright Neil LaBute, comments interspersed with other rattling on about this or that, she appears to be starring in her own private screwball comedy. She also hectors her son, who lives nearby, about his visits (inadequate) and his questions about her spending (intrusive), handing him an ever-growing list of chores, beginning with changing the filter on the "stupidifier." Delightful one moment, infuriating the next, she is the kind of high-maintenance parent who can't help becoming a burden to her only child.

All of this chatter, however, is delivered into a void: Lagerfelt sits on the bed that occupies much of Marsha Ginsberg's otherwise detail-free, all-white set, speaking to the air. (The audience is seated on two sides.) Between the mother's arias of delight or censure, her son -- who shares the stage but exists in another plane altogether -- provides a darker countermelody. Noting her increasing frailty, he says, quietly and without emotion, "It's physical, emotional, and mental. These being concentric and connected conditions being progressive and gradual, until they're not." He adds, "The causes, multiple, including retirement, cancer, my father's death -- they'd been apart for decades, but it hit her hard. Her sedentary existence -- inside mostly, in her apartment, in bed. Cigarettes -- a sixty-year habit." To underscore that last point, he produces a slide of his mother's apartment, the walls stained brown with nicotine.

Regarding the projections, provided by Knud Adams, who also directed, there's little point in pretending that Notes on My Mother's Decline isn't Bragen's confessional account; later, we will see images of his mother when young, sometimes with the little boy who grew up to write plays. And in his role as narrator, the son presents a much fuller picture: the circle of gay men who paid court ("the queen of queens," he calls her), the vague and unsuccessful passes at nutrition (she treats asparagus quiche as a health food), and the parade of helpers, including a home health care worker, masseuse, and "trainer." (The last "manipulates her legs, bringing them toward her chest. She weebles. He helps her up. She smokes.") We are spared no detail, no matter how squalid; speaking of the mattress, stained by her evacuations, she commands, "I need to turn it...one turn, so I have a clean quadrant."

Indeed, the mother's world operates according to a fixed and peculiar set of rules. Regarding his father, the son says, "Twenty-five years divorced, but they spoke every day. She would have her packages sent to his address, because she didn't trust the mailman. He would come in from New Jersey to deliver them, along with cases of seltzer. He'd move furniture for her. And change the burnt-out light bulbs." Is it any wonder that the lady is immune to change?

Even at a running time of seventy-five minutes, the dispassionate tone Notes on My Mother's Decline becomes a bit repetitious, with the repeatedly son noting the ever-shrinking dimensions of his mother's world while she herself prattles on to the end, doing nothing to stave off the inevitable. (At one point, she offers a roll call of her dead friends -- a wake-up call you might think, but no.) Even as she slides toward death, the play often feels like study in stasis. And a few of the more clinical details on offer seem ungallant; one may wonder if the son's gaze need be this unblinking. It's safe to say that if you've ever cared for an elderly, failing parent, you will feel the sting of recognition.

Then again, Lagerfelt is every inch the maddening charmer that Bragen has written, and Ari Fliakos, murmuring his lines with the assistance of Peter Mills Weiss' sound design, performs with unfailing concentration and commitment. (Lagerfeld, it must be noted, looks so hale and youthful that one wouldn't be surprised if she jumped out of bed and went into a tap dance, but this is a play for voices, and hers is sublime for the purpose.) There's also something haunting about the piece and its two-track approach; don't be surprised if you hear the lines reverberating in your head for days afterward. More than most plays on this subject, Notes on My Mother's Decline makes a persuasive argument that, ultimately, one's parents become one's children, and not very obedient ones at that.

Adams' handling of his two-person cast is fine, and certain bits of staging -- for example, the moment when the mother struggles to get out of bed, laying bare her growing weakness -- are especially telling. I wish he had been as meticulous about the design, however. Because Ginsberg's set comes with a ceiling, the lighting designer, Oona Curley, appears to be hard-pressed for decent positions; as a result, she opts for low-hanging units that often seem aimed right at the audience's eyes. More than once, I had to use my hand as a shade in order to see what was happening onstage. (Sophia Choi's costumes, especially the quilted housecoats preferred by the mother, are just right.)

Even so, Notes on My Mother's Decline is a distinctive companion to the recent run of plays -- including The Height of the Storm and All My Fathers -- about the impossible urge to understand one's parents before they are claimed by death or dementia. To its credit, Bragen's play is possessed of a stealth emotional power that is deeply felt, especially in a coda during which the son and mother, at long last, speak to each other, delving into the details her last days, her funeral, and its aftermath. Equally unsparing as the rest of the text, the sequence is marked by a give-and-take that reveals the depth of the characters' connections. In the face of their last goodbye, she says, simply, "I wanted you to love me." Looking around, he replies, "What else is all this, but love?" What, indeed? --David Barbour

(15 October 2019)

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