On paper, A Séance with Mom seemed right up my alley – a comic’s solo show about contacting one’s departed Jewish mother, featuring mistaken identity, a family secret, and a rabbi-turned-clueless guardian angel, all directed by the estimable Austin Pendleton. But oy vey how it fails to deliver, and what a shanda.
Nancy Redman wrote and plays Nadine in this partly autobiographical piece. Middle-aged and bearing a childhood trauma, Nadine never revealed this secret to her mother, Gussie, while Gussie was alive. It’s serious subject matter, and as such, just like comedy, it deserves craftsmanship. Unfortunately the production is devoid of the pacing and structure one would expect from a veteran comic and playwright and an accomplished director. Slow, repetitive, and meandering, its tedium is leavened only by an occasional spot of humor that lands and a few minutes of focus when Nadine‘s mother Gussie finally – after what seems like forever – appears.
Jewish Mothers and Others
Redman’s voicings of the characters, who besides the rabbi include other Gussies and a surprise guest, could be effective if given pointed material from which to, well, materialize. Gussie, with her endless reminiscing, hardly lets Nadine get in a word; we probably all know mothers like that, but this quality is developed so pokily, the memories so random and trivial, that the result is like an unedited stream of consciousness, lacking artful molding. Meanwhile, while Nadine and Gussie feel real, the hapless rabbi is an unbearable caricature. And the mistakenly summoned other mothers with the same name as Nadine’s don’t bring very much of the comic effect they’re meant to.
Funny and sharply-drawn fictional Jewish mothers aren’t hard to come by in the age of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a show on which such characters come to vivid life even when played by non-Jewish actors. That kind of quickening evades Redman here, whether she’s Nadine sitting in her messy apartment going through old clothes made by her grandmother, or Gussie nagging from beyond the grave. As a result the secret, despite being set up throughout, when finally revealed seems to come out of nowhere – as does so much in this sincerely conceived, but sadly soporific work.
All that said, an impromptu talkback after the performance revealed that the show had touched some members of the audience rather deeply. After all, how many of us can say we have nothing we wish we’d said to a loved one who has passed on? And as always, when it comes to art and entertainment, to each their own. A Séance with Mom runs through September 3 at Chain Studio Theatre in New York City. Tickets are available online.