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Theatre in Review: All My Fathers (La MaMa)

Deborah Headwall. Photo: Theo Cote.

In his new play, Paul David Young takes a remarkably creaky premise and runs rings around it. The "my" of the title refers to David Younger, a middle-aged gay playwright living in New York but, as the play begins, visiting his parents in his Kentucky hometown. Bill, his father, is an easygoing, affable sort, but Regina, David's mother, is terrifying. She has suffered a stroke and undergone hip and knee replacements, and has diabetes, high blood pressure, and, probably, dementia. ("I take so many pills every day that, when I lay them out, it looks like a backgammon board," she notes bitterly.) In any case, her mental focus is nonexistent, and she repeats herself, endlessly and naggingly. During their first encounter, she asks David dozens of times if he is hungry, until he is all but shouting that he isn't.

Not that Regina intents to feed her son. Barely able to get out of a chair, she bids Bill to get some week-old chicken and a serving of potato salad of similar vintage from the refrigerator, despite David's frantic denials of hunger. David, still smarting from decades of spiky relations with his mother, is already on edge; who wouldn't be, with a parent spouting a nonstop stream of nonsense and misery? After fifteen years, she still refers to David's partner as his "roommate," and her comments are laced with resentment about, among other things, "eating fancy dinners all the time up in New York City." Practically every word Regina utters sounds like a premonition of doom: "I see more wrinkles than the last time you were here," she says, scrutinizing her son. When he protests that a recent doctor visit resulted in a clean bill of health, she adds, "Well, you know, those doctors will tell you one thing, until they tell you something else. Enjoy the time you got left." She also falsely accuses him of having AIDS, and, just as falsely, insists she has cancer.

All of this pales before the moment Regina takes David aside and drops the bomb that Bill isn't his biological father -- that, years earlier, working as an office nurse, she had an affair with Nick, the doctor who employed her. (Nick also coached David on the high school swim team, and David has mildly erotic dreams about him.) Amplifying the upset, Regina engages in lengthy conversations with the deceased Nick; to David, she appears to be talking to the air, although he is visible to the audience. When challenged by David, she snaps, "You can go back to New York and rot in hell." As a topper, the encounter ends in an awkward and humiliating physical confrontation.

These early scenes are juiced up to no end by the great Deborah Hedwall as Regina, a malicious sphinx dispensing venom from the comfort of her stuffed chair, when not disappearing altogether into a fog of confusion. She speaks in a rasp that becomes a roar when she isn't believed: It's a cataract of rage, with curses embedded in the blandest of statements. As horrifying as she is, there's something pitiful about her, especially the way she clings to the memory of the affair -- real or imagined - that seems to be one piece of her life that is hers and hers alone. Adding his own brand of felicity is Jonathan Hogan as Bill, the ultimate go-along-to-get-along guy, shuffling across the stage in no particular hurry, ineffectually trying to smooth over Regina's tirades and offering a tiny shoulder shrug in the face of the worst possible news.

Still, you might feel that you've seen All My Fathers many times before, under different titles and attributed to different writers; for years, it seemed as if playwrights were legally required to put their parents under a followspot and examine the many shortcomings that resulted in unhappy adult children. It's a point made by Nick during the lengthy epilogue in which David, who, having admitted he is the author of the play we're seeing, tries to quell his rebellious characters. Accusing David of "massaging the facts," Nick adds, "Part of it you even stole from other plays. Indeed, a quick perusal of the script reveals that the author has raided the Western canon, using it as kit of parts with which to assemble All My Fathers." "That's not stealing," David replies, lamely. "It's called intertextuality." Suddenly, a play that, for all its verve, seemed a little weighed down by a rather tired premise, announces itself as a work of real deviousness. As of this scene, the characters have entered some kind of theatrical astral plane where David continues to argue with his now-dead parents and struggles to come to terms with Nick, whose evasive answers only add to the mystery of his paternity. Indeed, Nick suggests that David may have planted the idea in Regina's addled mind: "It's noteworthy that there's no recording of the initial disclosure," he says, "because the whole story could have been something you suggested to her. No recording -- like Rose Mary Woods accidentally erasing those key five minutes of Richard Nixon covering up the Watergate break-in." By the time David undergoes a DNA test using 23 and Me, then hesitates to get the results, the other characters urge the audience members to demand that he take action.

Packed with curveballs, All My Fathers is also a work of considerable literacy. David reaches for Didier Eribon's memoir Returning to Reims -- also about a gay man fleeing his heartland home and dysfunctional family -- to describe a sense of "fleeing his class," becoming different versions of himself in Kentucky and New York. And, confronting the way his parents presented a united front, keeping their scandalous secrets from him, he offers a backhanded tribute to their "durational performance. Eighteen years as completely conventional, doubly Christian parents. This beats Tehching Hsieh and Marina Abramovic all to hell." Such self-conscious trickery may not be to everyone's taste, and there are moments when audience members may feel they have paid good money to aid Young with his psychotherapy. But there is poignancy as well as cleverness here: David's straightforward family drama is transformed into a hall of mirrors in which -- thanks to fading memory, death, and the passage of time -- the possibility of grasping the truth about his parents -- and his parentage -- continually recedes. Even when the results of the 23 and Me test are eventually revealed, he is left legitimately wondering exactly what he has learned.

In the end, All My Fathers is a surprisingly nimble and funny fantasia on an issue that affects all of us, even if one's family life wasn't a textbook nightmare and one's forbears have been long correctly identified. Evan Yionoulis stages these games of identity charades with fluency, slipping between reality and fantasy with supple skill. In addition to Hedwall and Hogan, two of New York's most gifted actors, Brian Hastert makes Nick into a thoroughly teasing figure of mystery. As David, Richard Gallagher has the most difficult task, especially since some of his dialogue sounds a little wooden, but he aptly conveys the character's mounting confusion and anxiety.

Ao Li's set design, a kind of abstract den with a floor and upstage wall made of wallboard, strikes the right stylized note; it also makes plenty of room for Melissa Friedling's wide-screen video imagery of sunrises, rippling water, synapses, web pages, and a final triptych of home movies that appear to have come from the author's collection. (Friedling also supplied the sound design.) Donald Holder's lighting uses subtle techniques, like LED edge lighting on the set, to signal the play's differing levels of reality. Teresa Snider-Stein's costumes are beautifully suited to the characters. An unusually confessional work, All My Fathers leaves David alone with a legion of questions. Maybe, Young's play suggests, that's all one ever gets; I have a feeling he knows this better than most. --David Barbour


(7 October 2019)

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