Terrence McNally has been lauded as the Godfather of contemporary queer theater and with good reason. Radical works like “The Ritz,” “The Lisbon Traviata,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Corpus Christi,” and “Some Men” — many finding their way to Broadway — boldly portrayed gay men not as comic foils or swishy stereotypes but as three-dimensional, flawed human beings. You know, just like everybody else.
Inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, McNally is esteemed by critics and audiences alike.
Not that it was always the case. In 1964, his first major play, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” lasted a mere 16 performances on Broadway. Apparently, theatergoers were repulsed by the “dirty” gay subject matter.
And now, a half-century later, the quadruple-Tony winner is still at it with “Mothers and Sons,” his 20th Broadway production, currently on the boards at the Golden Theatre. The drama had a brief out-of-town tryout last year at the renowned Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
The new work is actually a sequel of sorts to “Andre’s Mother,” his groundbreaking 1988 playlet made into a PBS film starring Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas. That story centered on a distraught mother at her son Andre’s memorial service in Manhattan, in denial about losing him to AIDS. She is unable to accept Andre’s sexuality or his loving partner, Cal.
“Mothers and Sons” finds Katharine (the formidable Tyne Daly) some 20 years later, confronting Cal (Frederick Weller) for the first time since the memorial. Cal now has a cute, younger husband, Will (the highly capable Bobby Steggert, most recently seen in “Big Fish”), and a spunky six-year old son, Bud (an adorable Grayson Taylor).
The play is billed as the first on Broadway to feature a legally married gay couple, never mind that a few Off-Broadway plays got there first. The 75-year-old McNally, it should be noted, married his partner Tom Kirdahy (one of the play’s producers) a few years ago.
This is no gay-marriage issue play, however. Rather, it’s an absorbing meditation on the seismic cultural shift in attitudes toward gay people in just two short decades. If the focus remains on Katharine’s grief and loss, which is still immense (she recently lost her husband), it also examines the tender devotion between Cal and Will and their son. It tries to define a new normal, populated by alternative family members yet anchored by traditional family values of love, commitment, and mutual respect.
Under the thoughtful direction of Sheryl Kaller (“Next Fall”), “Mothers and Sons” is a poignant character study that relies on a complex backstory but virtually no plot, a rarity for Broadway.
Katharine has come all the way from Dallas to drop in on Cal unannounced, under the pretense of returning Andre’s diary. Turns out she couldn’t bear to read it and neither could Cal. She stands awkwardly, mesmerized by the view of Central Park, fiddling with her gloves, refusing to take off her fur coat, insisting she can’t stay.
Over the course of 90 minutes, we witness a delicate pas de deux driven by fond remembrances, awkward confessions, and –– sure enough –– biting recriminations. Halfway through, Will and the chirpy Bud enter the scene, complicating the dynamic even further.
Although America has changed, Katharine clearly has not. No doubt, the queer-tinged, borderline-pretentious references to Shakespeare, Mozart, Bach, and “Turandot” grate heavily on her already-frayed nerves.
“Andre wasn’t gay when he came to New York,” she insists, eliciting one of many bursts of uneasy laughter from the audience. The tearjerker of a climax, elegant in its simplicity, is well earned and highly satisfying.
If the roles fit Daly and Steggert like a glove, that’s because McNally wrote the play with them in mind.
As the grieving, emotionally frozen Katharine, Daly delivers an understated, bravura turn. Andre’s mother truly is a despicable bigot who years ago couldn’t even bring herself to attend her son’s lead debut in “Hamlet,” yet Daly shades her with glimmers of sympathetic vulnerability.
Steggert is spot-on as the husband struggling to conceal his exasperation over competing with Andre’s ghost and his spite for the icy woman who is still wielding homophobia as a weapon against Cal. Weller’s Cal is brilliantly ill at ease as he tries to walk the line between respect for Katharine and his disgust at her bitterness.
That said, there are minor weaknesses. The skimpy plot tends to hamper the forward momentum, and there are stretches where the action stalls. Several stale patches of dialogue seem lifted from earlier plays (the dilemma of same-sex labels –– boyfriend versus partner versus lover; the debate over homosexuality as a choice). And now we know that gay couples obsessing and gushing over their children are just as tiresome as hetero couples obsessing and gushing over their children.
The production is lifted immensely by John Lee Beatty’s exquisite rendering of a cavernous Upper West Side apartment featuring original moldings, glazed transoms, and a working gas fireplace, and carefully appointed with furnishings and personal objects that help define the characters. Katharine is awestruck by the abode and so are we.
Thanks to impeccable performances, the intricate, unnerving “Mothers and Sons” is a simmering stew of a drama. Not only does it examine the changing nature of family and the scars of homophobia, it’s also an impassioned testament to those, gay and straight, who lost loved ones during the AIDS crisis and have quietly soldiered on.
MOTHERS AND SONS | Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed, Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $59-$137 at mothersand