The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents
Nov. 6 through 22, The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St. (betw. Aves. A & B), 212-228-1195; 8, $18.
Grace and Mamie Gummer are actresses. Were it not for a mind-spinning quirk of heredity, however, they would be indistinguishable from all the other under-30 New York City women working through the thicket of the theater, yearning to win the role that will catapult them toward a film and TV career and the fiscal security all actors crave. Grace and Mamie’s role model is their mother, Meryl Streep; they are the middle children of Streep and her husband, sculptor Don Gummer. Elder brother Henry is 29. Younger sister Louisa is 17.
All Streep’s children bear strong resemblances to their mother. But for Mamie and Grace it’s eerie, as if fate decreed it insufficient for Streep to merely cast her inevitable shadow across the lives of her progeny but instead anoint them to stride through the world unmistakably aware of their mother’s pate as their own: Those elliptic heads, aquiline noses and luminescent, Streepy eyes; those thin, upturned mouths. On and off stage, their faces slide easily into mirth and mischief. Or they can also launch a don’t-come-too-close shot across the bow of anyone unvetted who might approach. When Grace takes the stage in The Sexual Neuroses of our Parents this week, it will get even more uncomfortable—and intriguing—as audiences gawk at the celebrity spawn.
In 2007, I met Mamie during rehearsals for Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. It wasn’t a powerful handshake, but it was cool, unpretentious, diplomatic; her eyes bore into mine as her greeting seemed uninflected yet unafraid. Like most children of global celebrity, she knows how to instinctively cloister her motive questioning—why are you saying hello to me?—behind a well-tempered smile. Like most journalists, I was dumbstruck by her similarity to Streep.
Since Mamie (given name: Mary Willa) made her New York debut in Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade at the Roundabout Theatre Company in 2005, it’s as if critics and reporters cannot resist tender allusions to her looks, either, all the while giving the young and gifted performer her due. In his mixed review of that play, New York Times critic Ben Brantley contentedly cited the Gummer lineage. Several months later, rendering judgment on Gummer’s work in Theresa Rebeck’s The Water’s Edge, Brantley capitulated, feverishly noting how her “crackling electricity…recalls the young Meryl Streep (who happens to be Ms. Gummer’s mother).” Last April, two sentences ran below the headline of a New York magazine profile of Mamie, occasioned by her role in a Broadway revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. “Her mother is Meryl Streep, but that’s not why you should know her” was cheeky to the point of cliché.
Mamie may work steadily in theater and film (she was two years old when she acted in her mother’s Heartburn), but she painstakingly avoids trading on Streep’s mythic status, on the respect Streep commands from peers and press alike. In one interview, she was pre-emptively defensive: “My mother never made any phone calls on my behalf. Yes, it’s true; people know who my mother is. But that’s something they’re thinking about. And if they see that [relationship] as a marketing tool, that’s their M.O.”
Grace’s approach is different, a full embrace of her face. Or at least one might infer as much by the marketing materials for an Off-Off-Broadway group. Opening the emailed press release, I first see a headshot of Grace that is pretty, alluring and grown to a colossal size, as if meant to shock the hearts of editors. The announcement was for a “stunning and disturbing new Swiss play,” The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, opening Nov. 6. Gummer plays Dora, who “after 10 years on tranquilizers, emerges with an insatiable sexual appetite that pits her against a secret and deviant adult world.” The venue will exhibit “photos from the Kinsey Institute’s archive” to accompany the show. Both her mother and sister are name-checked in the release. Under the radar, meet over the top.
Indeed, the press release trumpets Grace’s stage debut with the blare of a 4 a.m. car alarm. No, nothing modest here, plus there’s a real tease factor regarding press inquiries: Gummer is available; no, she’s not. Gummer is talking if you talk to the other actors, the director or the producers. Now she’s not talking.
So much for celeb spawn sinking or swimming on their own, the holy ethos espoused by such other rising stars as Lily Rabe (daughter of Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe), Paige Howard (daughter of Ron, sister of Bryce Dallas), Amy Redford (daughter of Robert) and, in olden days, the various Fondas, Cusacks and Turturros.
But for the Gummer girls, what’s equally astonishing is the protective web their intimates have granted them, with little of their personal lives bubbling to the surface: Mamie’s beau is a Billyburg boy; Grace has a force field of Facebook friends. In reply to questions sent to chroniclers of the not-quite-celebrity set, not one felt Grace should grant interviews to anyone lured in by the siren song of her ancestry, yet all could see how gratuitously Streep’s name was being deployed. “She’s really very nice,” went one email, refuting an unmade accusation. “She knows she looks like her mother” went another.
Perhaps the untouchable aura of the Gummer girls is the least the fourth estate can allow these odd, if outstanding, offspring. Whether playing it demure or diffident, it’s as if Grace and Mamie realize that by choosing to be actors (brother Hank is also an actor, filmmaker and co-founded the band Bravo Silva), they must first acknowledge their DNA, and then assertively unspool their double helixes into highly individualized strands.
So what, then, that Grace teased the press? So what if she’s visible yet as slippery as Frank Sinatra was to Gay Talese? It’s oxymoronic to picture Grace like Old Blue Eyes, sulking in the dark corner of a bar, bourbon in one hand, and cigarette in the other. But as we await her portrayal of a nymphomaniac, the come-hither look of her headshot makes you wonder where she’s headed next. Proceeding cautiously, no doubt.
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