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
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
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
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.