NEW YORK — Can a bad person become a good mother? That tricky question is only one of the dilemmas facing the mom in Francine Volpe's disturbing psychological drama "The Good Mother." A suspenseful premiere by The New Group opened Thursday night off-Broadway at Theatre Row.
Gretchen Mol elegantly portrays Larissa, a complex, single mom mired in financial difficulty, raising an autistic 4-year-old daughter. Major holes in her judgment and a distorted view of her past poor choices are the keys to her troubles, but she prefers to blame everyone else.
We meet Larissa while she's getting ready to go on a date with a trucker she just met in a bar. She's prattling to her odd-looking new baby-sitter, a disengaged college student named Angus (Eric Nelson, cleverly ambiguous).
Long ago, Larissa knew Angus' father, though she hasn't seen either of them in a decade. Yet she chooses to leave her daughter, Allyson, alone with the slightly creepy 19-year-old, after making many oddly personal remarks and dashing off hurried instructions about the toddler's care.
Volpe reveals Larissa's backstory in a series of tension-laden interactions with the men in her life, after she alleges that something unpleasant occurred while Angus was baby-sitting. Mol appears vulnerable, sympathetic and ditzy at first, only gradually exposing the disquieting truth. Beneath her fragile exterior, Larissa's more like a beautiful, poisonous spider, pitilessly weaving her web of manipulation and lies to entrap and gain sympathy from everyone she knows.
Director Scott Elliott builds the intensity with care, allowing several interludes of silence and even darkness onstage. Volpe provides cultural-related irony throughout, as when Larissa blithely sums up for Angus the result of the 1980s by saying, "No wonder we were the first generation in American history to make less than their parents; we were bathed in shame."
Larissa's trucker date is a burly man (Darren Goldstein) with whom she shares an awkward, near-farcical romp and then further leads him on in her machinations. Goldstein's performance is so carefully nuanced, the audience can't tell whether he's a decent guy or a ticking time bomb.
The other men who enter Larissa's nicely-decorated but unheated home include Angus' father Joel, a psychiatrist (Mark Blum, tautly concealing anxiety until Joel breaks down in anguish). Blum and Mol play a well-calibrated game of verbal cat-and-mouse as her true motives begin to slip out. Alfredo Narciso rounds out the excellent cast as an old friend Larissa met when both were teens counseled by Joel.
Crucial secrets are revealed in the final scene, as Larissa's carefully-maintained self-delusion disintegrates. Her friend urges her to "forget about what anybody else did to you and put it in your past." Whether she can act on that good advice is another matter.