Theater review: ‘In Mother Words’ at Geffen Playhouse


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For all the changing fads surrounding motherhood, not much has altered the basic facts of labor (more excruciating than any man can imagine), child-rearing (rewarding, if you have any hair left) and empty-nest syndrome (heart-wrenching, no matter how well you’ve done your job).

Maybe that’s why “In Mother Words,” a loose-leaf binder of maternal vignettes by different playwrights, seems so familiar even when the conversation turns to such progressive topics as playground insensitivity and international adoption, a teenager with autism who goes out on his first date and a young boy who wants to dress as Queen Esther for the Purim festival at temple.


The show, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, aspires to be a “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” for women whose standout accessory is a trendy diaper bag. If the work weren’t so bland, I’d advise theater producers to invest. These targeted, low-overhead diversions can make a killing, especially when big names jump on board.

The ingredients for this clumsily titled work, conceived by Susan Rose and Joan Stein, are simple: Four likable actors, music stands with scripts and some chuckling straight talk on epidurals and play dates. The result is an intermittently entertaining rap session with the apparent mission of reminding female audiences of what they already know.

Lisa Peterson’s bare-bones staging of this amiable if unoriginal enterprise is enlivened with some sprightly background projections. Too bad the writing — neat yet drab — isn’t similarly infused with color. The dramatists conscripted for the occasion — Beth Henley, Lisa Loomer, David Cale, Theresa Rebeck and Cheryl L.West, among others — have for the most part contributed pencil sketches, with a few offering the stage equivalent of napkin doodles. The feelings expressed by the characters are no doubt true, but the language is clichéd. Even the epiphanies are swaddled in grandmother’s faded old quilt. The three female cast members — Saidah Arrika Ekulona (earthy, wisecracking), Jane Kaczmarek (elegant, elegiac) and Amy Pietz (edgy, overwhelmed) — reveal different facets of the maternal experience. They are joined by one male actor, James Lecesne, who momentarily steals the show as a soon-to-be gay daddy with a control-freak nature more histrionic than any of his female counterparts. (Kaczmarek and Pietz perform through March 15 in a rotating cast arrangement à la ‘Love, Loss, and What I Wore’ that requires only light commitment from professionals who aren’t expected to be off-book even though the tickets aren’t cheap.)

The content of “In Mother Words” is painstakingly diverse, but by striving to cover the bases, the production comes off as thin and long. There’s probably a decent half-hour of mildly touching, mildly humorous material in this 95-minute show. But there’s nothing remotely as dangerous, perceptive or witty as what you’d find in a really good stand-up act.

Sure it’s hard to say goodbye to a kid on her first day of school and getting along with your future daughter-in-law is tricky business. But just because motherhood’s challenges are eternal doesn’t mean that the writing about them should seem so yesterday.

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“In Mother Words,” Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 1. $67-$77 (310) 208-5454 or Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.