Where would theater be without family? This great fount of inspiration, conflict and character building (or warping) flows from drama's very heart, starting with the original dysfunctional family, that of Agamemnon. Just in time for Thanksgiving, two such examples remind us yet again of the unfathomable power of moms and dads.
Like Mother, Like Daughter
In Cakewalk, a world premiere from Nalsey Tinberg now running at Main Street Theater, the last decade in the life of "Sprintze," the ultimate Jewish mother and Holocaust survivor (Luisa Amaral-Smith), is dutifully depicted as a domestic battle of wills between "Ma" and her equally stubborn, "should be more Jewish" daughter Barrie (Lisa Thomas Morrison). Ma shuffles through the decade dispensing wisdom and advice to her successful, married daughter, who, naturally, resents it, although deep down she's just like her.
Through November 20. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. $10-$30.
The Lion in Winter
Through December 17. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. $13-$15.
In this play of meager surprises, with other family members talked about but unseen, Ma and Barrie constantly collide and set off sparks, but their sparring never transforms into a big picture. Ma has never talked to Barrie about her young days during WW II, but when she's in the hospital for a blood clot in her leg and woozy from the drugs, she has a nightmarish vision of being a medical experiment in the death camp. The play pops alive, yet this gut-wrenching memory is dropped as quickly as it's mentioned.
Yes, Ma and Barrie argue, laugh a little and butt heads in conflict, with each of Barrie's birthdays during the decade celebrated with its own kosher cake (hence, that title). But these two are so alike, there's no drama in their story. The whole thing's somewhat artificial. The walls of Main Street start to close in.
Although there's little life in the play, there's great animation in the actors. Amaral-Smith, like MGM's old-time star Mary Astor, has a lock on playing mothers. Let her loose and stand back — A Catered Affair, Awake and Sing! and Anna in the Tropics would've been much poorer without her in-depth interpretations. She inhabits Ma with a lioness's fervor, a bubbellah's cheek-pinching cuteness and the stony resolve of a piece of granite from Mount Sinai.
Daughter Barrie is often whiny and disagreeable — our heart belongs to Mama — but Morrison does the impossible and softens her up. She has distinctive line readings that come straight from the Bronx's Grand Concourse. While Barrie and her struggles with Ma are never as meaningful as Tinberg assumes, Morrison has our attention.
A Grand Bitch-Fest
There are no grandparents at the medieval court at Chinon, where English powerhouse King Henry II and his estranged power spouse, Eleanor of Aquitaine, have gathered to celebrate a family Christmas. That's probably because Papaw and Granny have been sold down the Thames for some paltry benefice or meager plot of land. Don't ever get in the way of a royal, or you'll be barbecued, racked or trampled. But as long as you're a spectator, safely ensconced in the audience, it's a hell of a ride, made even more fun and wicked in Company OnStage's zippy rendition of James Goldman's prize-winning historical dramedy The Lion in Winter.
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The role of Eleanor is a plum, and we've got a doozy of an actor in Lisa Schofield, who lets us in on her evil little plots with a glance and quick dart of the eyes. She knows where all the bodies are buried, but she's also acutely tuned in to where Goldman's best zingers lie. She mines every one with a pro's ear and solid stage command.
She's matched every crooked step by Carl Masterson as mighty Henry. Boasting that he's the "greatest power in a thousand years," blustering, cajoling Henry will do anything to keep going until he names an heir worthy of him. He hasn't got long. Even if he's only 50 years old, he's worn out from constant battles — away and on the home front. Now he's fallen hard for Alais (Amelia McCunn), nubile princess of France and sister of petulant King Phillip (Nicholas Garelick). Rashly, Henry wants a divorce from "Medusa" Eleanor. Belying Henry's old man's heart — he could be a younger Lear — Masterson radiates a teenager's mischievous twinkle, and when he states with smug pomp, "I love being king," we believe him without question. He and Schofield make a dazzling pair of spiders, spinning furiously, devouring whatever they catch.
Their three sons don't stand idle; they plot as they were taught by Mommy and Daddy. Richard, the eldest (Mark Jones), is all warrior, reckless and blunt and violent, except when he's in the arms of King Phillip, where he turns all girly and weepy. Geoffrey, the middle son (Geoffrey Geiger), is clever enough to know he'll be passed over and has made peace with being a power behind the throne, whoever takes it. John, the youngest (Julian Brashears), is stupid, which makes him dangerous. The three actors deftly depict princes of bad blood. "We've made a muddle of things, haven't we?" says Eleanor.
A grand bitch-fest, Goldman's play is no muddle. Full of twists, elegant turns of phrase and the worst family this side of Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams, it's exactly what's needed for Thanksgiving.