NEW YORK—A mother-daughter bond is the focus of the comedic drama “Terms of Endearment,” currently making its U.S. premiere at 59E59 Theaters. It’s a show with heart, insight, and funny and touching moments. Unfortunately, some glaring weaknesses combine to make the production far less than it could be.
Written by Dan Gordon, the play is based on the novel by Larry McMurtry and the Oscar-winning screenplay by James L. Brooks. It spans 1978–1981 and examines the connection between Aurora Greenway (Molly Ringwald) and her daughter Emma (Hannah Dunne).
The audience first sees them, after a brief prologue, on the eve of 18-year-old Emma’s marriage to boyfriend Thomas “Flap” Horton (Denver Milord).
Aurora does not approve of her daughter’s choice. Aurora and Emma’s conversation on this point—and whether Aurora will even appear at her only child’s wedding—sets the tone for their love-hate relationship.
Aurora is the intelligent, somewhat repressed and rather disapproving sort who thinks she knows what’s best for her daughter. Emma, though clearly in love with Flap, is perhaps a bit too eager to get away from her mother’s judgmental airs and may be using the marriage to do so.
Yet even after the marriage and Emma’s move to another state, mother and daughter continue to talk almost every day, each needing and wanting the other in their lives, at least to a degree.
It’s how this relationship changes over time that provides the initial thrust of the play. When Emma starts having children of her own, and Aurora realizes she’s become a grandmother, she worries how that fact will affect her social life. The worry is rather ironic, as Aurora hasn’t had any kind of physical relationship since her husband died a decade earlier.
Things change for Aurora when she meets her new neighbor Garrett Breedlove (Jeb Brown). The somewhat overweight ex-astronaut prefers the company of women much younger than he is. Yet Garrett becomes Aurora’s most unlikely ally when things start to turn darker for all involved.
However, for a work of this nature to really come alive, the characters must be totally believable and that’s not always the case here. The main problem is Dunne’s performance as Emma (a role played by Debra Winger on screen); the performance never really resonates.
Strikingly, no palpable chemistry exists between Dunne and Ringwald–their scenes together feel flat throughout.
Emma is the one character who never seems to change in the show. Even Flap, basically a minor role, alters enough that we are able to understand him, while Emma does not.
This imbalance becomes more distinct in Act 2, which begins by focusing on Aurora and her relationship with Garrett. Ringwald and Brown’s scenes together are quite funny and full of passion, and show their characters’ growing bond of mutual respect. These sequences allow the character of Aurora to grow in a way that Emma doesn’t.
Exacerbating this problem is the fact that many of the scenes are portrayed as little more than snapshots of Aurora and Emma’s lives without delving into the characters.
We do see Emma’s best friend Pasty (Jessica Digiovanni), who we first meet just before Emma’s wedding and then again years later as the two woman talk about their respective relationships. It’s an interesting scene to be sure; but without a link to the time in between these two points, it feels that something important is missing.
Michael Parva’s direction must take at least some of the blame for these issues, and for the fact that many of the early scenes have an almost sitcom-like feel. It’s mostly due to the efforts of Ringwald and Brown (stepping into the shoes of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, respectively) that the play has redeeming qualities.
Aurora and Garrett are characters who, in other actors’ hands, could easily turn one-dimensional. Brown’s performance is alternatively whimsical and laced with pathos, as a man trying to recapture his youth, yet knowing his own limitations.
Ringwald, meanwhile, is excellent as she takes Aurora from an overprotective mother with a superior attitude to someone the audience not only understands but roots for in the end. Her final moments onstage are truly heartbreaking, with the audience in complete silence as they play out.
“Terms of Endearment” is a play with a lot of potential, but this production ultimately falls short. Hopefully the show’s creators will be able to rework the piece before its next incarnation.
‘Terms of Endearment’
59 E. 59th St.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or 59E59.org
Running Time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Closes Dec. 11
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle, and a reviewer for StageBuzz.com