Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce documents a terrible marriage, one whose promising start has long since crashed and burned. The New Group’s new production of the 1979 play meets the same fate; all of Marisa Tomei’s formidable skill and almost palpable intelligence can’t rescue it from the fatal drag of its long, central dinner-party scene.
I think Shawn’s intent was to show us, on an external, social scale, the internal tedium and dissatisfaction that plagues unhappy Marie (Tomei). But, lacking narrative momentum and puffed up with insufferable conversations between unpleasant people, the scene merely drums up those very feelings in the audience, rather than writing large Marie’s ennui and anger.
Photo: Monique Carboni
It’s a pity because the opening scene provides hints of acuity or at least creative writing. Lying in bed beside a sleeping Bruce, insomniac Marie lights up cigarette after cigarette while launching a series of nasty, uncomfortably funny tirades against him. Oh, how she hates this man! And it continues after he wakes up. “Would you mind putting on your bathrobe so that I don’t have to look at those filthy filthy disgusting pajamas?”
Mild Bruce (Frank Whaley) accepts all the abuse without getting angry, but even half-awake he’s condescending and unpleasant. The contrast between Marie’s spitting fury and Bruce’s groggy, blasé calm hints at a sort of quasi-surrealist disjunction which never pays off in narrative interest. As the play goes on, one finds oneself at a loss as to what could have lit a spark between this fiery wife and this unctuous husband in the first place.
But that problem is almost beside the point, because the play doesn’t create a compelling world against which character inconsistencies might stand out in disturbing relief, nor does it tell us anything about the one character we start to care about, Marie. The rotating table and the cinematic in-and-out fades on particular conversations are neat tricks, no more.
When, eventually, Marie lets a fully awake Bruce have it in no uncertain terms, Mr. Whaley’s ability to draw us into his devastation while covering up by gabbing on about other things is impressive and touching. And Russell G. Jones (Ruined) has a funny, if largely irrelevant, outburst as an insensitive cafe patron.
But good performances—even the sublime Ms. Tomei’s fine turn—can’t make this bloated thing a worthwhile evening of theater.
Marie and Bruce, directed by Scott Elliott, runs at Theatre Row. Visit The New Group’s website for tickets and information.