You can change your address, your politics, your nose, your hair. But your DNA? That’s trickier. Once your parents pass on those nucleotides, there’s little escape from biology.
You can hear that genetic expression loud and clear in three new plays concerning the vexed relationships between daughters and parents: Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola at Manhattan Theatre Club, Meghan Kennedy’s Too Much, Too Much, Too Many at Roundabout, and Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, produced by the Labyrinth Theatre Company.
Each drama unfurls in a single interior, though the individual settings and characters vary widely. The mind can scarcely conceive a scenario in which Kennedy’s steadfast Midwesterners would encounter Peet’s frenetic Floridians or Morisseau’s hustling East New Yorkers. (Though that’s a play I’d like to see. Maybe.) Two of the scripts (Peet’s and Morisseau’s) attempt to look beyond the wages of kin, but all three succeed best when focused on intricate, intimate, inescapable bonds.
Were Peet not established as an actor, it seems doubtful Commons would have procured such a prominent space or starry cast. A competent if stock affair, it unfolds in a characterless Florida condo where Judith (Blythe Danner) has alighted, her assets forfeited after her husband’s imprisonment. Her struggling daughter, Becca (Sarah Jessica Parker), joins her there, along with a younger beau who envisions a docu-series based on Judith’s plight.
With only a few adjustments, you could rejigger the show as an advanced seminar in poor impulse control and suspect decision-making. Every character acts irresponsibly: Diabetic Judith sneaks ice cream; Becca contemplates a baby with a man who should have a warning label tattooed on his pecs.
Compelling themes rear — culpability, moral obligation — only to slump back into incessant chatter and contrived plotting. The action unspools predictably with a used condom taking on the dropped handkerchief role. Danner ably mixes salty and frail, while Parker mostly seems like a woman merely playing at desperation until she rallies in a fine late scene. Together, they present a dual portrait of women so enwrapped in and enraptured by their own suffering that they can’t comfort one another.
For a gentler vision of mother-daughter relationships, descend to the Roundabout Underground for Too Much, Too Much, Too Many. Though the script veers perilously near precious, Kennedy and director Sheryl Kaller ground the play in concrete emotion and unshowy performances.
Since the drowning of her husband some months ago, Rose (Phyllis Somerville, lively and elegant) has locked herself in her bedroom, crafting her obituary and dictating cherished recipes to her daughter, Emma (Rebecca Henderson, stalwart). Emma has all but given up trying to coax her mother out until the revival of a new pastor (Luke Kirby, sympathetic) revivifies both women.
Kennedy could stand to lose the mild magical realism, the sentimental bent, and some of Rose’s airier lines. “I could write the recipe to your breath,” she tells her dead husband. But the love of the characters for one another — much deeper and more forthright than in Commons — gives this meditation on grief a flavor more sweet than bitter.
You couldn’t say the same of Morisseau’s indignant Sunset Baby. Kenyatta (John Earl Jelks, no-nonsense), a former black revolutionary, abandoned his daughter, Nina (DeWanda Wise, commanding and severe), decades ago. Now he comes in search of letters willed to Nina by her dead mother. Nina isn’t interested. “Do not say my name as if you’ve said it a hundred times,” she tells him. “We are not familiar. We are not close. We are not in sync.” But Morisseau’s play suggests they are. Kenyatta wanted to remake society. Nina just wants to fund her escape from it. Yet both are roughened and toughened by life, incapable of admitting weakness or declaring love.
Though Morisseau is a powerful writer, her words don’t yet emerge from character. Kenyatta, Nina, and her boyfriend, Damon (a nicely volatile Harvey Gardner Moore), all speak in the same sharp, staccato poetry, an imperfect fit with the realistic environment conjured by director Kamilah Forbes and the various designers.
The broader issues — varied definitions of living outside the law, the cost of political commitment — are addressed only glancingly. But the failure of Kenyatta and Nina’s relationship rings clear and hard and true, particularly when Nina confesses her secret desire. “I don’t want a hustle or no fast money. I want a home,” she says. “I want some kids of my own.” But won’t she simply repeat her parents’ mistakes? Blood tells — more frankly and fluently than most of us would like.