BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
A shadowy character study, “The Good Mother” considers a 30-something single mom who proves to be her own worst enemy.
Opening on Thursday at Theatre Row, The New Group’s world premiere of Francine Volpe’s drama features Gretchen Mol (“The Notorious Bettie Page,” “Boardwalk Empire”) in the title role.
The contemporary story, which runs only 90 minutes, is set in a modest suburban house, where Larissa (Mol) is advising a first-time babysitter about her autistic 4-year-old daughter’s needs. The baby-sitter is a semi-morose, semi-Goth college boy whose father, Joel, happens to be Larissa’s former psychologist.
Although Larissa enjoys a nice first date (and a bit more) with Jonathan, a kindly truck driver, the next morning she believes that something untoward has happened between her non-verbal child and the dubious baby-sitter.
Larissa’s decision to report the kid to the police leads to confrontations over the next 24 hours about her past and present life with Joel, Jonathan and Buddy, an ex-boyfriend who happens to be a cop. Through these face-offs we gradually learn about Larissa’s various troubles with dope and men during her younger years that she insists are all behind her now.
But we also note how Larissa obviously has problems with responsibility and, more significantly, how she manipulates people -- intentionally or otherwise -- while always viewing herself as a victim.
The dark ending sees Larissa teetering on the verge of tragedy as her child wails in the next room.
Although the author’s psychological study seems rather murky, the play resembles a latter-day version of several 1920s dramas that George Kelly wrote, like his Pulitzer-winning “Craig’s Wife,” which slowly reveal an initially attractive woman to be malignant or at least not so creditable. Francine Volpe’s technique is more modern, of course, and her portrait of a not-so-good mother is more ambivalent.
A pretty Gretchen Mol gives Larissa a sweet voice and an artless, even helpless manner that for a while camouflage the woman’s worse propensities. Larissa’s teen mentor Joel, another character with good intentions who proves to be screwed up, is invested with quiet pain and regret by Mark Blum. A burly red head, Darren Goldstein sweetly embodies the trucker as the nice guy he turns out to be. Alfredo Narciso as Buddy and Eric Nelsen as the babysitter lend solidity to their vaguer characters.
Although Scott Elliott, the director, obtains these worthy performances, his production drags, weighted with too many lingering silences and long, slow fade-outs by lighting designer Jason Lyons. No doubt Elliott wants viewers to appreciate all of the subtleties of the back story that the playwright gradually provides, but the minutes tend to tick by heavily. Cynthia Rowley dresses everyone appropriately while Derek McLane’s setting for a toy-strewn living room looks a bit sinister in its characterless decoration.
“The Good Mother” continues through Dec. 22 at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.thenewgroup.org.