December 14, 2018

The Artistry of ‘Art’

“Tongue of a Bird,” now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, is a confoundedly difficult play. I’m not sure whether that’s due to this reviewer’s denseness or to the layers upon layers of meaning and tortured psychological undertones offered by playwright Ellen McLaughlin.

In its simplest synopsis, the all-female play is about search-and-rescue pilot Maxine (a strapping Cherry Jones), who is importuned by a mother (Diane Verona) to find her 12-year old daughter (Ashley Johnson), kidnapped in the wintry mountains of the Adirondacks.

After days of searching, Maxine finds the girl — dead.

But that’s only the framework, or, if you will, the metaphor, for the much more complex searches that propel the characters. To unravel the motivations and repressions of the play’s five women forces viewers into their own searches for comprehension, along trails sometimes fascinating and illuminating, at other times maddeningly convoluted.

Matters aren’t made easier by the reappearance of Maxine’s dead mother (Sharon Lawrence), who swoops in on wires from up high, much as did playwright McLaughlin when she played the airborne Angel in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

Some welcome relief is provided by the astringent humor of Maxine’s Polish grandmother. She is played by Marian Seldes, who shines in a uniformly fine cast, directed by Lisa Peterson.

“Tongue of a Bird” continues through Feb. 7. Call (213) 628- 2772 for tickets. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor