The premise of " 'night, Mother" seemed gripping enough at the time of its premiere in 1983: A weary if able-bodied woman of early middle age stuns her mother with the announcement that she has chosen this particular evening to kill herself.
An argument over self-annihilation as the subject of real-time drama was daring and draining in the hands of the original stars, Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak. So why does the Broadway revival of Marsha Norman's Pulitzer-winning play, which opened last night at the Royale Theatre, feel as if its treads have been worn way down?
The question plagues a theatergoer almost from the instant the house lights dim and a new pair of antagonists, the formidable Brenda Blethyn and Edie Falco, come out of their corners. What once played as a harrowing look at unconditional surrender to emptiness and failure now proceeds as a rather desultory dance to the grave. The story, guided flatly to the stage on this occasion by director Michael Mayer, lacks the blunt-force impact of its predecessor; you don't experience the play's grisly conclusion as a tragic inevitability or even as a release. The bang at the end is, sad to say, a bust.
The problems reflect some misapplied talent by its powerhouse cast, as well as the passage of time. Comparisons may be anathema, but the fact is Bates, as the defeated daughter, Jessie, drew so unforgettably on the play's negative energy that it is difficult to fully accept a portrayal that does not attempt something similar. A black cloud hung over Bates, and her physical girth seemed to confirm the heavy burden that life was for her Jessie. In a strange way, you rooted for Jessie to make good on her threat, because Bates made you believe in Jessie's unwavering anguish, made you want her to succeed, just this once, at something.
Falco, who effortlessly reveals on "The Sopranos" the troubled soul of a woman torn between God and the ill-gotten good life, is not capable of a lousy performance. She brings a heartening idea of truth to the emotionally blunt women she has made her specialty, whether as the morally ambivalent Carmela or as the ordinary women she's played on the stage in plays like Warren Leight's "Side Man" and Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."
In this case, however, Falco's solidness, the reservoir of strength that makes her a touchstone for audiences, is what pushes her off course. Her gaunt Jessie in the shapeless cardigan is so efficient that the character's vulnerabilities disappear. The endless bits of caretaking she performs for her mother before completing her own bloody assignment -- restocking the candy jars, relining the garbage can, cleaning out the refrigerator, replacing the slipcover -- remind you, in fact, of Carmela and her mesmerizing mastery of the household arts. Though she enumerates, in the twangy accent she adopts here, the disappointments of her life -- the broken marriage, the initiative-sapping epilepsy, the crummy jobs, the dissolute son -- Falco is more persuasive as meticulous housekeeper than receptacle of hardship. You're never convinced of her conviction that she has to settle accounts with the wrong end of a gun. (If anything, this Jessie appears more likely to use it on her mother.)
Blethyn may be a bit too young for Thelma -- the actress adds the trace of a limp, as if to aid in the belief in her dependency -- but she's a more compelling fit than Falco. She fulfills the mandate in the text for a woman unable to acknowledge reality, to hear her daughter's cries of pain and, what's more, to understand that she has had a part in their amplification. Thelma's late-in-coming realization of the price of her blinders gives this production its only moments of aching sadness; it's Blethyn's gift to allow us to see through Thelma's stubborn selfishness to a mother's heartbreaking cluelessness.
Mayer's production, abiding by the script, is set in the present; Neil Patel's scenery conjures a classically homey if charmless suburban kitchen and living room. It is Thelma's house, and Jessie has been living here in retreat from the world for some time, plotting her suicide. Why she has picked this night as her deadline is not explained, but Norman makes clear that this is no impulsive act; Jessie has waited for this moment until the medication she takes for her seizures has restored her to health. As Jessie explains with chilling honesty, the stopping of her heart is the one activity over which she retains total control.
Yet " 'night, Mother," rendered with such painstaking attention to physical detail, down to the fuzzy homemade afghans draping the sofa, corresponds to no idea of suicide that is easy to relate to. And given the culture's growing sophistication in understanding the causes and treatment of depression, it is more difficult now than it was 20 years ago to simply consign Jessie's determination to kill herself to the realm of the poetic. The impulse to suicide may indeed be a bit inscrutable, but anyone with an experience of it in their family can probably tell you that it's far more likely to be the result of a disordered mind than a clear one. Realistic drama need not reach a verdict with the authority of a scientist, but the evidence has to conform, in some way, with our general sense of how the world works.
In the end, this new " 'night, Mother" seems rather appalling -- an act of revenge on a less-than-perfect parent. Who hasn't had one (or more) of those? Just before Jessie's terrible final exit, she gives Thelma a round of instructions, among them a warning not to tell Jessie's brother and sister-in-law that they had spoken of her plans, because "if they know we talked about it, they really won't understand how you let me go."
Boy, talk about passive-aggressive: I'm killing myself because you didn't know how to stop me! This soggy " 'night, Mother" offers a preposterously ghoulish way to send your mom a message.
'night, Mother, by Marsha Norman. Directed by Michael Mayer. Set, Neil Patel; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Dan Moses Schreier. Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes. Through Feb. 27, 2005, at Royale Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. Call 800-432-7250.