Gretchen Mol is The Good Mother's Larissa, a mother of questionable worth. Written by Francine Volpe and directed by The New Group's Scott Elliott (and, FYI, with costumes by Cynthia Rowley), the play will run through December 22nd at New York's Acorn Theater.
Volpe is clearly interested in modernizing the small-town relationship triangle trope. And she does this by adding elements of trending analysis tools to stage-old emotional patterns. Larissa feels stuck as a single mom with little education, whose best friend was caught up in drugs at a young age, and whose past is—as the backstory unravels—sprinkled with statutory molestation. She seems cut from a cloth with which we're familiar: We're introduced to a chattering blonde, painting her toenails in a satin bathrobe, minutes before leaving a near-stranger in charge of her kid in order to go on a date with a truckdriver.
But the trademarks are offset by a few new-age tropes of their own; a gay goth teen (the babysitter) for example, and an unnamed program (presumably AA), connect the absent best friend, who now studies yoga, and Larissa, with her "special needs" daughter, to a counselor named Joel. For the most part, the wrinkles caused by these allusions to our increasingly hybridized perspectives on the less-than-cultured are welcome insight to a dizzying plot. These people are not at all othered by their problems (with money, the law), and, thanks to Mol's quietly neurotic presence, easy to digest.
Mark Blum, who plays Joel, gives a standout performance as a man accused of rape and of putting his teenaged patients before his own family. In a long conversation between Joel and Larissa, we learn that he is manipulative, tedious, pathetic, and... well-rounded. Where every other character is essentially a struggle between one judgment call and another (is Larissa a good mother, or not? And who is good for her? Is it the pot-smoking truckdriver? Is it her ex, the cop?), Joel offers a rich and intelligent depiction of the many directions a person can be pulled when confronted by temptation.
Although a few guns fail to fire—literally, Larissa is handed a loaded gun, which never goes off, breaking one of Checkov's cardinal rules—The Good Mother offers several considerable character studies, and a carefully woven web in which they flail. Volpe, in a Q&A following the performance, admitted she was most likely younger than most of the audience. Of course this could explain the weaker grasp on some characters, but not the eloquence of others, which leaves the more lasting impression.