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Review: “Two Drink Minimum” lovingly distills a tortured mother-son relationship

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William S. Murphey (left), Wendy Melkonian and Susan Shalhoub Larkin as the mother in "Two Drink Minimum" at Theatrical Outfit. (Photo by Josh Lamkin)

The title of first-time playwright William Balzer’s autobiographical play “Two Drink Minimum,” at Theatrical Outfit through November 18, refers to the ritual required of the play’s narrator, Bill (William S. Murphey), in steeling his nerves to call his mother. The first drink, he says, helps him gather the courage to dial the number; the second helps prevent him from hanging up.

Over the course of the play, we start to understand why so much liquid courage may be necessary in preparing to talk to Mary B (Susan Shalhoub Larkin). Tough but outrageously sensitive, independent but needy, persistent, domineering, funny, pragmatic, demanding and idiosyncratic, Bill’s mother can make even the simplest of conversations difficult at every turn.

Balzer is on the board of Theatrical Outfit; indeed the Balzer Theater, where the company is housed, is named in honor of the philanthropist and former United Parcel Service executive. But “Two Drink Minimum” is no vanity project. It’s an accomplished play, and it’s a great match for Atlanta audiences: tender, funny, nostalgic, plain-spoken and charming. The two leads do a great job limning the complicated and thorny but ultimately loving mother-son relationship.

The play depicts the relationship across many changes over many years. It is carried by Larkin’s smart depiction of the fierce and difficult Mary B, which never descends into simple caricature, and by Murphey’s touching sense of troubled reflection. This is no easy nostalgia for him: it’s a character going through the painful process of looking back through the long history of his strongest family relationship to try to make sense of his life. Larkin’s Mary B is no delightfully quirky Miss Daisy, either. She’s defiantly, charmingly her uncharming self. Mistrust, neediness and sheer doggedness are always backed by a sense of the character’s history, her pragmatic response to the bad hand life has dealt her.

I was no fan of the use of puppetry for early scenes which depict Bill as a child and Mary B as a young mother. Michael Haverty’s and Scottie Rowell’s antique-doll-like puppets are nicely designed, even beautiful, but the puppetry is far too distracting. It’s also too small for the large theater, and the scene they’re used for is too long for their use to be effective. It would make much more sense and be far more believable just to have the adult actors momentarily take on the parts of child and young mother (visible adult actors speak and move the puppets anyway). Mary B gives some family history during the puppetry scenes — it’s a crucial explanation for some of her tough, no-nonsense, unforgivingly suspicious outlook on the world — but I was so distracted by the puppets that I could barely concentrate on the content or significance of what was being said. The use of video screens and shadow play seems likewise unnecessary and detracts from a central human story that’s compelling enough without all the extra accoutrements.

Still, “Two Drink Minimum” is a satisfying study of a complicated relationship. One leaves with a clear sense of the characters at its heart. Mary B may make no ostensible effort to win us over, but her story here — sweet, funny, personal and direct — ultimately feels touching and universal.

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