Mother Load

Writers have known for eons what it took psychologists years to figure out: that most of life's serious dramas start with dear old Mom. (Oedipus predates Freud by -- what -- a couple of millennia?) But the subject remains fresh on the stage, as shown by Nicky Silver's Fit to Be Tied -- one of the funniest and most forgiving commentaries on dysfunctional mothers in years.

Nessa is the mother of Arloc (Dominique Gerard), a sensitive though confused young man who's just done something bad. Really bad. So bad he can't tell the audience just what that bad thing is, but it's clear, with all his handwringing and pacing back and forth, that he feels terrible about it. He will share the fact that he's rich as all get out due to a plum inheritance from his late father (who very publicly left nothing to materialistic Nessa). We also find out that he's had problems in love -- fairly serious problems. And who but Mommy Dearest could have planted that tender root at the bottom of all troubles of the heart?

Lovely, chain-smoking, vodka-guzzling Nessa would give anyone an excuse to stay in analysis for years. With the help of Michael Scheman's breakneck, screwball direction, Deborah Hope makes Nessa one of the most appealing screwed-up mamas ever to grace a Houston stage; she creates one of the best comic performances in Houston this year. One moment she's the soft-bosomed mom of our dreams -- "I want to do something for you," she urgently tells Arloc over and over -- and the next she's stomping her feet, waving her empty glass and screeching "more wine" at the waiter. As delivered by Hope, Silver's deliciously manic lines shiver with unexpected wit and knife-sharp timing. On Friday night, every time Nessa snapped open her tiny black handbag to yank out a fist-sized ashtray in which to flick her endless ashes, the audience roared with laughter.

Hope manages to reveal the childlike sweetness inside her anxiety-ridden, narcissistic drunk. In most every respect, Nessa is still a child: With her, Arloc behaves more like a father than a son, handing over money, advice and a place to stay when she finally leaves Carl, her health-freak bore of a husband. (Sad sack Carl -- who can't get enough of unfaithful Nessa -- is played to the whiny hilt by James Huston, who after Hope gives the second-best comic performance of the year.)

But poor Arloc, who has a tendency to fall into obsessive and wrong-headed love, could also use a little mothering. He's swooning for Boyd (Hal Core), a beautiful narcoleptic angel whom Arloc first sees floating about the stage at the Radio City Music Hall during a Christmas pageant. Boyd shows up for their first date dressed in his wings and Jesus sandals. He's so beautiful and so sleepy, falling off in mid-sentence, Arloc can't help but want to keep Boyd there. For always, forever. No matter what Boyd wants. So after Arloc ties Boyd up.... But any more would give the plot away. And this play is too good to give away.

One of Silver's smartest and most writerly gestures is to make Boyd, the man most everyone falls in love with, a smarmy angel/actor with a heart of gold (sort of). The character's a sly reference to the effect of the Angels in America trilogy on all subsequent scripts about gay love in the '90s. But because Boyd is a promiscuous, charmingly sweet-natured liar, thief and whore, the playwright turns all our angel expectations inside-out.

Boyd does in fact heal everyone's psyche, but not because he's so good. Rather, it's because he is so bereft of any guiding moral principles; he does whatever Arloc and Nessa want him to, leaving them to figure out things on their own. Through Boyd -- but not because of Boyd -- Arloc and his mother discover each other, learn to love each other and learn to be brave with each other.

Nessa, who wants everything for herself, also wants to be able to give something to Arloc. That something becomes Boyd. Yes, the whole thing's a wee bit Oedipal, but as Silver well knows, this is the 1990s, and thankfully, we don't go stabbing our eyes out for this kind of thing anymore.

Fit to Be Tied plays through June 28 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101, 527-8243.

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Lee Williams