It take guts to do a steamy sex scene before hundreds of people, but it might require more courage to carry off the sort of awkward groping that Gretchen Mol and Darren Goldstein engage in for The Good Mother. Reeling home after a first date, Mol’s Larissa, the financially shaky single mother of an autistic toddler, and Goldstein’s Jonathan, an affable truck driver, hungrily suck face. Soon he is grinding up behind her in a door frame, courting splinters; next come amateur wrestling moves on the couch, and Larissa’s idea of a lap dance—jagged hip jutting and poorly syncopated snapping. Titillating this is not.
Alas, not much goes right for Larissa, the brittle center of Francine Volpe’s increasingly sour character study. She spent a lifetime making callow decisions that led to shrunken horizons—skipping college, keeping her baby, taking out an unaffordable mortgage—and now she’s in her midthirties and living in denial, clinging to self-help clichés as the bills mount. When Larissa asks the painfully shy son (Eric Nelsen) of her former high-school counselor (Mark Blum) to babysit, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to derail several lives.
Mol exudes ample warmth, intelligence and empathy—qualities that make it hard to accept her as the stubborn, self-deluded creature that Volpe’s title vaguely sneers at. Larissa’s journey is a halting flight from responsibilities, during which she tries to pin blame on anyone but herself. The strength of Volpe’s script (mostly well served by Scott Elliott’s moody, noirish staging) is in how the author keeps us guessing about everyone’s motives. But Mol is too cool and contained for the internal meltdown that needs to emerge after a hundred minutes of tension and evasion. If only this elegant actor could mess it up more often.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote