‘Night Mother

Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Fran's Bed; Illustration by Sean McCabe

Two hours watching Mia Farrow, and I still can’t tell you if she’s any good. The standard categories of acting quality and lack thereof, usually so handy, are too crude to capture the performance she gives in Fran’s Bed, like using a bear trap to catch a moth.

In James Lapine’s new comic drama, she plays a comatose woman standing outside herself, watching her family try to deal with her terminal state, reliving scenes from her life with them. Yet at every moment, Farrow remains ethereally herself. With her pale hair, paler skin, and plaintive schoolgirl’s voice, she exudes a unique, dreamy charm. A pleasure to watch, yes, but the performance leaves you with only the haziest sense of who Fran might be.

Farrow at least avoids the fate of many Hollywood types who return to theater after a long absence, or haven’t spent much time here in the first place—the ones who get acted off the stage by a more seasoned co-star. Instead, that’s the fate of Julia Stiles, who fails to locate the emotional depths in Fran’s high-powered youngest daughter. Far better is Harris Yulin, honest and grimly moving as Fran’s anguished husband, a man trying to get comfortable on the rack.

Lapine has written the sort of play in which the sight of a hospice worker, like a gallows, tends to concentrate the mind. There have been plenty such stories lately, wherein a pending death spurs an episode of reconciliation, redemption, or growth: Tuesdays With Morrie is a treacly example, Wit a more nuanced one. Lapine’s treatment works through some of the standard themes, as the estranged family makes an effort to pull themselves together, trying to decide whether to sustain their mother or let her die. His innovation is to deploy two Frans simultaneously: one, the effervescent Farrow, gliding across the stage; the other, a latex dummy with a slight, unhelpful resemblance to the Crypt Keeper, lying in bed. Is this a comment on euthanasia, a brave foray into the charged debate over brain death versus the living soul? Lapine never develops the issue; what could have been an opportunity sours into a distraction.

In the play’s defense, Lapine does show an admirable knack for making very bleak jokes in very bleak places, as when a hospice worker says that Fran’s husband insists on paying with a credit card because “he wanted the miles.” Beyond providing some contrast to his leading lady’s fair gentility, the laughs do a much-needed job of punching up the sluggish plot: Each one is a dark little puff in the show’s sails.

Elsewhere in Off Broadway’s Dying-Mommy Week, MCC presented the American premiere of Laura Wade’s London hit Colder Than Here, in which a family—unhappy married couple, two distant daughters, terminal mother; sound familiar?—finds itself grappling with their problems as her time runs short. The play has an appealing odd streak, as when cancer-ridden Myra assembles a PowerPoint presentation of her funeral plans. The situations may be familiar, but Wade handles them with grace. She has an acute feel for family dynamics—the way, for instance, children align themselves with one parent rather than the other.

Though director Abigail Morris doesn’t supply the propulsion the show needs, she draws lovely work from the cast. Young Lily Rabe is direct and transparent as a troubled daughter, and Judith Light shines as the hurting, loving, and, above all, resolute mom. It’s a particularly impressive turn because some version of this figure is becoming a commonplace in the end-is-nigh play: the stoic sufferer who lingers at center stage, as despondent loved ones press a fist to their mouths and look off into the wings.

If such plays and such characters are going to continue turning up so regularly—Bryony Lavery’s Last Easter is another recent example—we might at least hope for a break from their constructive, healthy treatment of dying. The time seems ripe to watch a terminal case go on an absolute rampage: drinking, swearing, abusing, carousing, trying to squeeze not a lifetime’s worth of happy memories, but a lifetime’s worth of bad behavior, into those precious final weeks. Over to you, Mr. LaBute.

Fran’s Bed
By James Lapine.
Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater.
Through October 9.

Colder Than Here
By Laura Wade.
MCC Theater.
Through October 15.

‘Night Mother