Perhaps “mother knows best” isn’t so accurate. And maybe “motherly love” is more complicated than it seems. Anna Moench’s “Mothers,” at the Duke on 42nd Street, cracks open a vision of motherhood to reveal a ghastly core.
In the world premiere Playwrights Realm production, the urbanite lawyer-mom Vick (Jasmine Batchelor) is visiting her old friend Meg (Satomi Blair), who’s hanging at a mom-and-baby meet up with her new B.F.F., Ariana (Maechi Aharanwa). The nanny, Gladys (Tina Chilip), and the one dad, Ty (Max Gordon Moore), are off on the sidelines.
It all starts off pretty standard, a display of the usual conversations about motherhood: Vick, as the career woman, criticizes Meg for her choice of diaper duty; Meg and Ariana, the dedicated mothers, shade Vick for choosing her job over full-time mommy work.
Fairly action-less, except for some light social tension — disagreements about breastfeeding, vaccination and disciplining — it’s also raucously funny. Robert Ross Parker’s direction juices up the passive-aggressive snark. Ms. Aharanwa is a laugh and a half, beaming and preening as her arched eyebrows and fluttering eyelashes betray her thinly veiled judgments.
The jokes roll until the play takes a sharp dystopian turn. An unnamed attack has left our characters trapped and low on supplies. Wilson Chin’s bold, aggressively modern set collapses in on itself, like a house of blocks.
Curiously, though, we only get hints about the nature of this doomscape; Ms. Moench wants to focus on what the women will do to help their children survive.
Things turn grim. Vick is forced to sacrifice part of herself, as if to tithe for the time she didn’t spend at home; Ty joins a dangerous horde of men from the outside; Ariana faces a physical predicament; and Gladys and Meg decide what they’re willing to do to endure.
When society is sloughed off, motherhood — in Ms. Moench’s conception — becomes fierce and feral.
The impromptu apocalypse isn’t the only awkwardly incorporated element. The play takes place in a world in which race relations are subverted — whiteness is marginalized, and there’s brief derogatory talk of “beige babies” from the mothers, all of whom are women of color.
By the end, watching Ms. Chilip close out the brutal affair, one senses a moral being delivered about sacrifice and survival. But some of the most fertile grounds for discussion in “Mothers,” especially about identity politics, get ditched somewhere on the road from Mommy and Me to Armageddon.
Through Oct. 12 at The Duke on 42nd Street, Manhattan; 646-223-3010, playwrightsrealm.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
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