“I’m dirty,” moans Larissa (Gretchen Mol), the title character of Francine Volpe’s play The Good Mother. “I don’t do things on purpose to hurt people I just sometimes want to feel good.” In this New Group show at Theater Row, set in nearby Westchester, good feelings don’t abound. Instead, Volpe offers a slippery drama about choice and responsibility, structured—rather programmatically—around scenes between Larissa and various men: a new pick-up, an old boyfriend, a former mentor, etc. While maintaining that she only wants to safeguard her autistic daughter, Larissa makes decisions that may compromise the child’s welfare.
Scott Elliott is an immensely variable director in his New Group work—gracefully choreographing loud, messy interactions, often clumsy with anything quieter. Here he sometimes succeeds in ratcheting tension up during a scene, but then lets it slip away at every close with ponderous light and music cues. The play does keep us guessing as to Larissa’s moral character, but the uneven direction and performances cheat this ethical thriller of its excitement.
Mark Blum, always excellent, plays a sinister variation on his typically empathetic typecasting, and Alfredo Narciso gives an affecting turn as a conflicted cop. But the lithe and lovely Mol is something of a puzzle. Is she an adept actress playing an emotionally limited character, or is she herself stunted in conveying passionate feeling? It’s a hell of a riddle, though very likely not the one Elliott and Volpe intend.