In the past couple months, I’ve seen two plays at the Second Stage Theater Company: Mary Page Marlowe and Straight White Men. Both were interesting, by and large well-acted, yet neither fully succeeded, for different reasons.
In Mary Page Marlowe, deep character development with no end but death was made more interesting by having multiple actors playing the eponymous woman at various ages — and not in chronological order. By and by we saw her life, one scene after another adding to our understanding, just not in order so that, perhaps, we could understand her better than people who knew her all her life — in order. And since it’s so very well done, it almost worked.
Straight White Men, however, is flawed. Again, interesting character relationships, but to no resolution. Is this why the playwright/director/producer decided to blame it on the audience during the pre-show by blasting electronic percussion at an offensively high decibel level, then making a theatre curtain out of a glitter ball to flash strobe lights at the audience? At least last year’s exceedingly unpleasant production of 1984 forewarned the audience that there’d be migraine-inducing effects. But the audience of Straight White Men was assured that they were being abused to make a point: That some LBGTW+, as explained by two pointless characters, often felt as uncomfortable as the audience did just by being in non-LGBTW+ society. The relief at the end of that 30-odd minutes was so great we were bound to be glad of the play, right? Talk about hitting the audience over the head with a baseball bat to send a message. Which, by the way, does not appear to be the point of the play at all.
Mary Page Marlowe by Tracy Letts, directed by Lila Neugebauer. Hereafter “MPM.”
MPM was largely about one woman’s life of not dealing with her alcohol and sex addictions. We first meet her as her first marriage is coming apart. It takes a while, with this not chronological play, to learn something about why. When we meet her mother (passionately brittle work by Grace Gummer) and father (sympathetically portrayed by Nick Dillenburg), we feel the gap between these young marrieds just after WWII. When we meet the mother again distancing herself from her 12-year-old daughter with alcohol and a sharp tongue, we see the beginning of Mary’s rugged road.
Mary is played by six excellent actors:
· Mia Sinclair Jenness at the age of 12
· Emma Geer at the age of 19
· Tatiana Maslany at the ages of 27 and 36
· Susan Pourfar in her 40s
· Kellie Overbey at 50
· And Blair Brown in her 60s-70s.
Geer and Brown were the only Marys who got to smile. The 19-year-old (Ms. Geer) in hope of a different life from that of her mother, and Ms. Brown at having made it through to sobriety and her third and favorite husband, Andy, sweetly played by Brian Kerwin.
· Tatiana Maslany is so good that her lack of theatrical experience was negligible. Already broken, her Mary is tough, aloof, and protective.
· Susan Pourfar is a New York actor I have followed for some time, from a far off Broadway production of Turn of the Screw, to Tribes and most recently Mary Jane at New York Theatre Workshop. She never disappoints. Here her Intensity disguises her pain and perplexity.
· The harshest scene in the play and probably in Mary Page Marlowe’s life, was the aftermath of a particularly dreadful time when Mary hit rock bottom, presumably precipitating the end of her second marriage. Kellie Overbey is devastating, first in her quiet acceptance of her guilt and just deserts, and finally in her fury. Her husband, very well played by David Aaron Baker, cannot deal with this Mary and his floundering marriage.
· Blair Brown’s Mary, having survived her life and three marriages, is the only Mary with a real smile.
· Kayli Carter is excellent as MPM’s daughter Wendy, a put-upon (and she really is!) teenager and a concerned young adult losing patience with her alcoholic mother.
All in all, MPM offers good direction, good acting, good design, and a just slightly off script by the always interesting Mr. Letts.
Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee, directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Hereafter “SWM.”
The Premise: The father, Ed, has his grown boys over for the Christmas holidays, harking back to the days of the boys’ youth, while their mother was still alive.
Entertaining as SWM sometimes was, with some very nice ensemble work and an excellent scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, it didn’t seem to know where it was going. Witness the pre-show, which we were told was part of the play.
· Armie Hammer is the youngest brother, Drew. He is tall and handsome and OK, but this actor’s lack of theatrical experience shows. Without an editor to cut away, Mr. Hammer did not flow from one scene to the next, even though the play, unlike Mary Page Marlowe, was in chronological order. Not that he made mistakes, or if he did I was unaware. Unfortunately, he was not alive on stage.
· Josh Charles is excellent as middle brother Jake, unctuous to cruel, living in the moment as well as in the past, frequently “fighting” with his younger brother Drew.
· Paul Schneider as the eldest brother Matt was quietly full of surprises and quite marvelous. I am not familiar with this subtle actor’s work but will be paying attention in future.
· Stephen Payne as Ed, the father, seemed a little uncertain of his lines early on (as the third actor to play this role in rehearsal and previews), but strengthened as the evening wore on. Mind you, his final scene was quite unbelievable, but that’s the fault of the writer, not the actor.
Matt is presently underemployed and living with the father, who is happy to have his company. While the others leave their messes behind, Matt cleans up after everyone. He says more than once, “I just want to be helpful.” That he does a great deal of work to make everyone else comfortable, things his mother would have been doing had she been alive, was barely noticed and not meaningful to his brothers or even his father. This of course is insulting to the boys’ mother, and all mothers. Matt’s brothers wonder why, with his brains and college degrees, he’s not doing more with his life. They don’t get him at all. He is not behaving like their notion of a privileged straight white male.
Strong relationships of a lifetime between the brothers are powerful and hilarious. If one says something unforgivable and others leave the room, somehow they come back to dance it off in delightful choreography by Faye Driscoll. After all, family is family and it seems they’ll always get along in the end. Until they don’t and the ‘different’ one, with unaccustomed ideas and conclusions, is left out in the cold. These three sons have no resemblance to “My Three Sons” of 1960s television.
By the end it seemed to me that the play had moved on to gender issues. Matt started being what he considered truly useful when the mother died, and he took care of the youngest brother the way the mother would have — talked him down from hysteria, encouraged him to take a shower (you’ll feel better) and then to have a sandwich (ditto). Throughout Matt played the mother’s role of feeding the men and cleaning up after them. Her loss, which clearly affected each man, made Matt step into her place. And none of the other men in the family had any respect for what he was doing — to them Matt had become a loser if he lacked ambition and didn’t use his intelligence and training to do something “bigger.”
Since that was the most interesting thing to come out of the play, I do not understand why the writer and director decided to disguise this by implying in the obnoxious pre-show that the play was about LGBTQ+ issues and punishing the (largely white) audience with overly loud electronic muzak and glaring strobe lights.
Theatre and politics go together, but this pairing ended in a nasty divorce.
It’s been a while since Molly spoke her mind. I will try to catch up this summer, as I did last summer, and fill you in on theatre-going not mentioned since April (!) of this year.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to search for scraps of paper on which she scribbled her thoughts about other plays….