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'Mothers and Sons' review: Heartfelt but mechanical

Frederick Weller and Tyne Daly in

Frederick Weller and Tyne Daly in "Mothers and Sons" at the Golden Theatre in New York. Credit: AP / Joan Marcus

Cal: "I didn't give him AIDS. I didn't make him gay."

Katharine: "Someone did."

Here we have the nuclear tug-of-war still tugging between the loved ones of Andre, 29, a promising actor who died of AIDS in 1989.

Cal (Frederick Weller) was his partner who nursed him and who mourned for eight years before being able to love another. Katharine (Tyne Daly) is Andre's homophobic mother, who rejected her beloved gay son, blamed Cal and only came from Dallas to New York for the memorial service in Central Park -- one of so many in the final nightmare decades of New York in the 20th century.

Terrence McNally, who has astutely chronicled the thrills, the taboos and the tragedies of gay life since the mid-'60s, feels a bit too much like a playwright on a mission this time. In "Mothers and Sons" -- directed with care by Sheryl Kaller -- Cal worries that the horror of AIDS and life before gay marriage will fade into a footnote for his young husband (Bobby Steggert) and their 7-year-old son (Grayson Taylor).

This is a "never forget" message that McNally surrounds with a sentimental, four-generation family story with plenty of his sharp observations and wit, but not enough to disguise the mechanics and contrivances that drive his worthy intentions.

Katharine -- a character McNally wrote for Daly -- arrives without warning at Cal's enviable prewar Upper West Side apartment facing Central Park. (John Lee Beatty designed the perfectly homey details.) It is 25 years since Katharine last saw Cal -- and, significantly, refused to hug him at the memorial service. Ostensibly, she has come from Dallas to give him Andre's diary.

But why did she come? We never really know. We do know that the cold, bigoted character benefits much from Daly's combination of toughness and implicit warmth. Would anyone this alienated from her own time also be a longtime subscriber to the New Yorker magazine? Could anyone smart enough to acknowledge she wanted a son to "let me love him the way I had never been loved" be so blind to ways that others love?

Weller, saddled with the heaviest lectures, also finds the lightness in a man who refuses to feel guilty about his happy life. But could anyone pull off a line suggesting that AIDS might not have happened if gays felt they "deserved the dignity of marriage?" And skeptics may doubt that a child, even a child this bright, can heal the world.

WHAT “Mothers and Sons”
WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
INFO $59-$137; 212-239-6200;
BOTTOM LINE Heartfelt play, but with a mechanical message.

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