Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles?
nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
February 9, 2008
Workshops and readings are wonderful opportunities for playwrights and artistic teams behind the birthing of a new play to really explore the work. With limited blocking, scripts in hand, and bare bones production values there is the freedom to focus on the guts of story and character. In Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles?, the work-in-progress co-authored by Adam P. Kennedy and his mother, Adrienne Kennedy, and the first offering of the inaugural Public Lab series at The Public Theater, production values, unfortunately, are what seem to have received the attention that should have been devoted to the development of what ultimately comes across as a static and dull work.
To call Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles? a play is actually a misnomer, and that is the heart of the problem. It lacks a strong theatrical structure and dramatic arc, two of the most basic and necessary ingredients that make a play a play. Certainly, this is a piece that is still evolving and perfection is by no means expected, but at this stage there are elements that should be in place that are mostly absent here.
At the top of this autobiographical work, we hear a voice in the darkness ask the titular question, and then lights rise on Brenda Pressley, the avatar for Adrienne Kennedy (here referred to as Mom), who for the next 65 minutes recounts a series of events leading to her momentous Beatles meeting. Many of the details, though, particularly during the first 15 minutes, turn out to be the mundane prelude to a disappointingly measured description of what should be an exciting excursion of her starting off in New York in 1967 with only $500 in her pocket and an idea for a John Lennon play, then making serendipitous connections with a cavalcade of celebrities along the way, which ultimately leads her to the Beatles.
There are points when the piece comes to life a bit, hinting that there is a possible play to be mined here, particularly when Mom removes some of her protective armor and adoringly describes meeting Lawrence Olivier, and how he fit into her life while she worked on the play and naively navigated the waters of the London entertainment scene. Anyone who has ever had surreal brushes with greatness would feel a connection to this section, and it is also when the piece is at its most engaging because it feels present. There are also some heartbreaking details that emerge towards the end as Mom recounts how things did not turn out as she expected. With a stronger and clearer build throughout the piece, along with Mom doing more reliving than recalling, the lessons learned here could potentially come across in a much more devastating and meaningful way.
The piece overall also does not get much support from the performances and the direction. Pressley reads the part of Mom with a hurried efficiency, speeding through her recollections in a way that gives them all the same weight, never really climbing in and relishing the more significant memories. As a result, her performance feels manufactured and one note. This may mostly be the fault of director Peter DuBois, who should have been a better guide and whose choices overall seem like they go against creating clarity. For instance, he has Pressley direct her performance to the audience as if we were her son Adam, which works well, but then he makes the odd decision of positioning the actor who plays Adam, William DeMeritt, house left, having Pressley then direct her focus to him every time he asks a question. This shift in focus ends up being confusing and distracting, taking you out of the piece.
Alexander Dodge's sets, costumes and projected slides of London are tasteful and understated, although the projections in combination with Pressley standing at a music stand for the duration of the play makes the experience feel more like you're hearing a talk in a museum screening room instead of being in a theatre watching a play. Along with the slides, clips of '60s rock music play at various points, but it isn't clear, with the exception of one or two of the clips, why these particular songs are played when they are played, as they have no ostensible connection to the text being read. Michael Chybowski's lighting is simple and classy and sets the appropriate mood. Lighting design could likely be used even more effectively as the play develops and finds itself.
If simply creating a chronicle is the aim for the writers of Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles? then they have achieved that goal, however to make this successful as a theatre piece there will need to be more thoughtfulness with regard to locating and exorcising a dramatic underbelly, along with some judicious cutting of fatty text. At one point in the piece, Mom recounts someone who says to her after reading a draft of her John Lennon play, "This is a good idea, but it needs a lot of work." The same can also be said about this idea.