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September 28, 2012

Strand Theater Company premieres Dylan Brody's 'Mother, May I'

Ellen Grunman dominates every conversation in her home, finishing other people’s thoughts, and you know she makes all the major decisions.

She’s two-parts Judge Judy, but one-third Mother Harper, the character Vicki Lawrence memorably created on the “Carol Burnett Show” — horribly dismissive of, or simply oblivious to, the things that matter to her husband or children, their accomplishments and yearnings.

Whatever her DNA, Ellen is a deliciously vivid character who forms the sometimes frightening axis in Dylan Brody’s play “Mother, May I,” receiving its world premiere production by the Strand Theater Company.

Brody, an accomplished comedian and writer, has fashioned a work that sets off so many familiar rings that audience members are bound to feel that the playwright somehow has an intimate knowledge of their own mothers. Fathers, too, for that matter.

In the Grunman household, issues have been ...

suppressed in such quantities it’s a wonder the kids aren’t in 24-hour therapy and patriarch Paul doesn’t burst blood vessels at every meal.

But Ellen floats above everything, dropping her belittling barbs with abandon. She doesn’t seem to realize any of the damage, since she doesn’t really notice anyone else, not fully, not deeply.

She is in continual float mode, hovering above the rest, lost in her own world of fun memories that can be triggered by the slightest comment anyone else manages to squeeze in — everything turns into a you’ll-never-guess-what-happened-to-me scenario.

The plot revolves around a rare visit home by son Daniel, who works in Hollywood. As his sister Franny, a struggling writer, puts it, the family motto is: “Long-distance: Significantly better than being there.”

Daniel is much more successful than his parents know. So is the girlfriend who is with him, Sarah (or Susan, as Ellen keeps calling her); she’s in film development for Warner Brothers (Ellen thinks she does the developing in a darkroom).

If all of this sounds like sitcom fodder, it is. But Brody manages to give it enough weight to sustain an evening-length play, and to keep a surprise around nearly every bend. The biggest surprise, during the inevitable revelation process for everyone (except Ellen, of course) in Act 2, doesn’t quite convince, but it sure is unexpected.

Also unexpected is the way Brody allows the parental characters to become rather sympathetic. Both cannot stop offering their help, as if the mere idea of kids growing up, moving out and on, has never made any sense at all. They have an unending need to be needed.

Maybe that’s where the cruel streak starts — Paul can be just as hurtful as Ellen, especially when it comes to their son. But they care, in their own peculiar way, which makes them all the more fun to watch.

Valerie Lash gives an impressively assured performance as Ellen, spinning out her lines with a disarming naturalness and considerable color. Larry Levinson does deft work as Paul, conveying just how trapped and emasculated the character is, yet how there’s a heart in there still functioning.

The rest of the cast — Jessica Felice (Franny), Jon Kevin Lazarus (Daniel), Caroline C. Keibach — are not as confident or layered, but they come through.

Rain Pryor, the Strand’s new artistic director, has the action running smoothly through the intimate space — with only 52 seats, an intimate experience is guaranteed with this family that, as Carrie Fisher said of hers, puts the “fun” in dysfunctional.

When Sarah spots works by a big-name photographer on a wall in the Grunman home, Paul appreciates her enthusiasm in ways she cannot guess. He quotes the artist: “Until a person can actually see things in a new way, he'll continue to think things remain exactly the same.”

If only Ellen could develop new eyes, she’d be so startled at all she has missed.

"Mother, May I" continues through Oct. 12.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:15 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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