Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mary Stuart, aka Mommy Blew It

Pity the suburban Mom who wants her children to be exposed to some big city cultchah.

At the end of June, my husband and I dropped our boys off at sleep-away camp in the Poconos. There they stayed for almost four weeks, swimming, hiking, biking, going to amusement parks, sleeping in tents, playing poker, and stacking up character-building experiences. My older son worked as "waiter" in the dining room for a week, and actually chose to wait on my younger son's table. My younger son learned how to put laundry away, make his bed (sort of) and apply his own suntan lotion. They took Tamiflu, wrote letters home and flirted with girls. My younger tried meatloaf; my older son discussed time travel with his counselors, one of whom confessed to being a gambling addict and taught him how to count cards. While they were away, I wrote one short story and fiddled with another. I ran with our dog, finished Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge and took my husband's car to be washed. I ate an ice cream cone alone and debated whether to increase my teaching load in the fall. I wrote our kids almost every day, but other than that, my maternal responsibilities were limited to cleaning out their closets.

My days were long and lovely; I barely cooked; I lost track of time.

Then last week, it occurred to me our boys were coming home on July 26 and would need something to do. It was the third week of July, still high summer. We did have plans to go to the Jersey Shore and San Francisco, but not until the middle of August. That left three weeks to kill (I mean fill). I scrambled to think of activities for us to do together, so that we would not fall into that family trap of me sitting in front of my computer, blogging, reading emails, typing up a syllabus and begging them to go outside and play basketball, while they sat around playing Xbox and watching TV in the basement. A friend of mine told me about the Titanic exhibit; I immediately bought tickets on line. The new Harry Potter movie was opening; we would see that. The pool was open; we would hang out there. It would be lovely and leisurely but it wasn't enough.

We would go see a Broadway show.

Both my kids love the theater but finding a show that none of us had seen, and which was appropriate for all of us, was tough. While they were away, I had seen God of Carnage and Next to Normal. Both shows were excellent and completely inappropriate for two pre-adolescent boys. Plus, I had no desire to see either of them again. Over the years, my kids had seen Jersey Boys, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera and Hair.

Then I remembered that Mary Stuart was playing on Broadway.

My older son had studied the Tudors last year. He was blessed with a terrific history teacher who had turned him into a history buff. My husband and I had religiously watched "The Tudors" on Showtime up until the episode when Henry VIII has Anne Boleyn beheaded. I had been the treasurer of Shakespeare Society in college and had tiny roles in the society's productions of Henry IV, Part I, and Macbeth. My younger son had gone to see his cousin in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Montclair and loved it.

My own parents had met in front of the Tower of London! We love the Elizabeth Age in our house.

Mary Stuart was playing on Broadway until August 16th. We had to see it. The tale of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, cousins and rival queens, arguing about religion, plotting against each other, sending secret notes via their various male courtiers, who were busy scurrying around, doing the queens' bidding, and all of it culminating in one female ruler having the other beheaded. There would be violence, bloodshed, beautiful women, and family betrayal. It sounded like a high-class cat fight. My kids would love it.

I read the review in The New York Times ; the reviewer, Ben Brantley, raved about the play. I told my good friend from childhood I was planning to take my kids to see it. This friend has taken her kids everywhere and seen everything.
"I don't think that's appropriate," my friend said. "It's high drama. Take them to something else."
"Oh, it's fine," I said dismissively. My friend grew up in New Jersey but now lives down South. She had clearly lost her edge. "My kids love the theater."
My friend stayed quiet. I bought the tickets.

My mother, who has seen more theater than any other person I know, but has also been known to suffer the occasional lapse in judgement when it comes to children and culture (she took my almost-13 year old and my 13 year-old nephew to see "Hangover"), uttered a note of caution when I told her about our plans to see Mary Stuart.
"Talk about a stretch," she emailed.
She was making me a little nervous, but the deed was done.

On Monday, we went to see "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince." I figured it would be a nice prelude to Mary Stuart. Talented, British stage actors sneaking around a dark castle in England sounded a lot like Mary Stuart. My kids loved the movie. I went to the bathroom three times to check my email. Part of the problem was that I had only read through Book 4 and didn't really know what was going on. The other part of the problem was that at almost three hours. the movie was interminable. But my kids were happy. Tuesday night, I reasoned, we would all be happy.

The next day, we drove into the city, and had dinner at an Italian restaurant. I ate pea soup and a salad and drank a glass of sauvignon blanc. The kids ate pasta with sweet sausage and meatballs. After dinner, we walked to the theater. As we were waiting to go inside, one of the ushers said to us, "Are you sure you don't want to go to see Phantom?"
Phantom of the Opera was playing next door.
"We saw it already," I said sweetly. I looked around at the crowd. Most of the people waiting to get in the theater were middle-aged and older. Mine were the only children there. Finally, I spotted a young man who looked to be in his twenties. He gave me courage.
I pointed to a poster of Mama Mia.
"Look guys, the woman who directed Mama Mia also directed Mary Stuart," I said. "Isn't that interesting? Such different shows."
"Mama Mia sucked, Mom," my younger son said.
"We loved Mama Mia!" I cried.
"No, Mom," my younger son said. "You loved it because you're a girl."

We took our seats. The curtain rose. There was a huge, black brick wall, a starkly made up bed, a bench and a suitcase in front of it. Two good-looking men in modern-day suits walked on stage and started rifling through the suitcase, helping themselves to letters and jewelry. Mary Stuart's female servant yelled at them. Then Janet McTeer, the famous British actress who plays Mary Stuart, walked on stage. She was beautiful and articulate; she sat ramrod straight on the bench. Her bearing really was regal. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. She asked to see a priest. She asked to see Queen Elizabeth. The men retreated. Her maidservant reminded her that she had her husband killed but it wasn't really her fault.

My younger son started fidgeting in his seat.
"I don't like this," he said. "This is worse than Temple. At least I can follow what's going on in Temple."
My older son sat, transfixed.

The play was three hours long. We had an hour and a half to go before intermission. "Just close your eyes during the boring parts," I said to my younger son. He continued to fidget. I could feel the woman next to him getting annoyed.

Mary Stuart left the stage. Harriet Walter, who plays Queen Elizabeth, came on. She was playful and wry. She flirted with the Earl of Leicester. She kissed Mortimer. She told everyone what to do; then hemmed and hawwed about what to do with Mary, who the male characters referred to as "the Stuart."

My younger son, who had chosen to wear a white polo shirt and pale khaki shorts to the show, looked as if a bright light were shining on him every time he wiggled in his seat. I placed my hand on his arm.
"Please sit still," I begged.
"I don't understand what's going on," he said, miserably.

During intermission, I bought my kids a bag of Pepperidge Farm milano cookies. I suggested we go home.
"No way," my older son said. "Here," he said and handed me a pack of playing cards.

And so, my younger son and I spent the second half of Mary Stuart playing Black Jack, Slapjack, 21 and Hangman in the lobby of the Broadhurst theater. An usher and the bartender sat nearby and gossiped about the Tony Awards. I called my husband and told him what we were doing.
"Weren't the tickets for that show expensive?" he said.
"Yes," I said.

Finally, a bell rang. "Just six minutes left!" the usher said excitedly. He wanted to go home too.
We headed upstairs and stood in the back of the theater for the last few minute of the show.
Mary was dead; Elizabeth was upset. She hadn't really wanted to have Mary killed. The show ended, with Elizabeth dressed in black, staring miserably and silently out at the audience. When Mary took her curtain call, she was resplendent in a red satin gown and crown. I would have liked to see her in her final moments.

"The second half was better than the first," my older son said.
I handed him back his deck of cards and thanked him.

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