At the start of The Good Mother, running Off Broadway through Dec. 22, Larissa (Boardwalk Empire’s Gretchen Mol) appears to be just that: a single woman trying her best to raise a 4-year-old nonverbal autistic daughter.
Larissa’s true, more complicated nature reveals itself over a series of lengthy scenes that take place in her cluttered, unheated living room, made unassuming but not the least bit cozy by set designer Derek McLane. Every visitor who enters gets drawn into Larissa’s tortuous web of psychological manipulations: the college-aged babysitter, Angus (Eric Nelsen); her childhood psychologist and mentor, Joel (Mark Blum); her date, a truck driver named Jonathan (Darren Goldstein); and Buddy, a police sergeant and childhood friend (Alfredo Narciso).
At the beginning of the play, Larissa suspects that Angus has done something to her daughter while babysitting. We have no idea what that ”something” is, but the accusation is alarming enough that Angus’ father, Joel — who served as a father figure to Larissa when she was younger — begs her to drop the issue. Larissa uses her considerable charm to manipulate Jonathan and Buddy into taking her side in the conflict.
That’s the present action, but there’s a sense that the real story is in Larissa’s past. A victim of parental neglect, she’s become a dishonest, manic, possibly sociopathic adult. Mol plays Larissa with appealing vulnerability — she’s clearly bitter about her disadvantaged upbringing, but she’s desperate to present a false image of success. She can hardly pay her bills, yet she wears an array of stylish outfits (designed by Cynthia Rowley), which look tellingly garish against her wood-paneled surroundings.
While Mol’s textured performance piques our interest in Larissa’s history, Francine Volpe’s script delivers nothing to reward our attention. Every reference to Larissa’s questionable past and how these men factor into it is hopelessly vague. Director Scott Elliott’s pacing doesn’t help, either. While running at a lean 100 minutes, the play is divided into thick slabs of scene, mostly centering on a marathon conversation peppered with long pauses and a lot of chin-tapping. The moments that spark to life feature Goldstein, who brings likability and unexpected complexity to his trucker character.
The Good Mother tests your comfort with ambiguity, but at the same time, it’s practically begging you not to care. C+
(Tickets: thenewgroup.org or 212-239-6200)