‘Seven Year Disappear’ review: When mom goes rogue

Cynthia Nixon and Taylor Trensch in The Seven Year Disappear."
Cynthia Nixon and Taylor Trensch in The Seven Year Disappear.”
Monique Carboni

It would be tempting to say that Cynthia Nixon is one of the most accomplished LGBTQ actors working today. But the truth is, the Emmy, Tony, and Grammy award winner is among the most prolific, admired actors, period. 

Aside from playing Miranda in the sprawling “Sex and the City”/“And Just Like That” franchise, she’s a central character in HBO’s wildly popular “The Gilded Age.” Previously, she earned a Golden Globe nom for her chilling turn in Ryan Murphy’s “Ratched” on Netflix. She’s spent considerable time behind the scenes as well, directing select TV episodes and plays such as “Rasheeda Speaking.”

Somehow, she still has found time to run for the Governor of New York, champion causes like gender inequality and rescuing the environment, and raise three children with her wife Christine Marinoni.

Now she can add “The Seven Year Disappear” to her extensive resume. The ambitiously searing two-hander, presented by the New Group at Signature Center, displays Nixon’s gifts as a chameleon, shape-shifting among several characters. Her chief role is Miriam, a celebrated, top-tier performance artist who inexplicably vanishes on the night a major commission from MoMA was to be announced. Not even her beleaguered 30-year-old son, Naphtali (an eloquent Taylor Trensch, who slayed in “Camelot” and “Hello Dolly!”), knows where she is. 

Upon entering the intimate, 191-seat Griffin theater, we discover two somewhat bedraggled figures onstage, seated at a table, frozen. The figures are Nixon and Trensch. They wear dark grey jumpsuits, the kind you might see in a sci-fi thriller set in a dour, distant future (Qween Jean created the costumes). Are they breathing? Can Nixon overhear me gushing about her?

Under the artful direction of Scott Elliott, the 90-minute, intermissionless play hopscotches around in time, spanning 1990 to 2016. We witness when Miriam loses her 4-year-old son at the Bronx Zoo, Naphtali flirting and fighting with his mother’s art dealer/ex-boyfriend, a soused Naphtali becoming unhinged after Hillary loses the 2016 election (he worked on her campaign), and his meth-fueled hookup with a creepy, random man (Naphtali wrestles with substance abuse). 

Taylor Trensch stars as 30-year-old Naphtali, while Cynthia Nixon plays his mother, Miriam.Monique Carboni

Upon her surprise return after seven years, Miriam insists that her son participate in a scheme that could elevate her career, yet diminish his self-esteem even further. He flatly refuses, at first.

The way in which Nixon embodies the various secondary characters, especially the gay male sexual partners, is both unnerving and oddly exhilarating. At a sex party, one man commands Naphtali, “So you’re gonna be Daddy’s good little piggy tonight,” between puffs. The Daddy, as it happens, is an Episcopalian bishop.

Naturally, the niggling question that hangs over the proceedings is, “What the hell happened to Miriam?” Perhaps she was abducted or murdered. Maybe it was some sort of artsy stunt. Whatever the reason, during her absence Naphtali’s fear turns into anger, and finally, uneasy resignation.

The intentionally patchy narrative by Jordan Seavey (“Homos, or Everyone in America”) would get hopelessly tangled if it weren’t for Derek McLane’s sleek, minimalist set and John Narun’s clever projection design, which display titles to help navigate the timeline. The various screens, alternately showing stills and real-time video and prerecorded footage of the actors, amp up the fragmented, fractious nature of the characters’ relationships. Not to mention their damaged psyches. Miriam is so erratic she most likely suffers from bipolar disorder. She refuses medication, fearing it would blunt her creative edge.

“The Seven Year Disappear” is intensely moving, if overwrought. It’s a deeply theatrical examination of the fragile bond between mothers and sons, the vagaries of the contemporary art biz, and the struggle to find a slice of happiness in an increasingly formidable world. 

For some theatergoers, however, certain scenes may be triggering. The program flyer states, in fine print, that “This production contains sexual situations, strong and graphic language, discussions of mental illness and the use of illegal substances.” I suggest that they reprint the flyer, bump up the type size, and put a bold box around the disclaimer. And while they’re at it, insert a warning about discussions of perilous election results as well.

“The Seven Year Disappear” | The New Group | Pershing Square Signature Center | 480 W. 42nd St. | $52-$72 | Through March 31, 2024 | TheNewGroup.org | 90 min. with no intermission