Monday, May 14, 2007

Crazy Mary


The title character in A.R. Gurney's new play is the (somewhat disputed) scion of a formerly prominent Buffalo family who has been interned in a tony sanatorium for the rich since the early 1970s. In that time, no member of the clan has been for a visit, and she rarely speaks; she prefers to pass the time alone in her room, listening to classical music and opera on the radio. Her solitude is ended one day when her last surviving relative--a distant cousin who is now her legal guardian--pays a visit with her college age son to investigate the mysterious circumstances that her new "ward" has been living with over the past thirty-odd years.

Sounds a bit hokey, right? I had worried that in the hands of Gurney, Crazy Mary would come off as far too schematic and situational, but my fears were dispelled after the first scene of Act One. Alternately hilarious and harrowing, this is Gurney's best new work in quite some time, and the smart production it is being given by Playwrights Horizons accents both the quirkiness and the heart of the piece exquisitely.

In recent years, Gurney has moved away from his former calling card, the drawing room farce, favoring pieces that are more pointed and political in nature. And--to this theatregoer at least--very few of his current works have been overly successful on a whole. Gurney is a good writer but he's not as well-versed in the language of political theatre as some of his contemporaries, often leaving his pieces dry and far too ambitious. Aside from a few stale jokes about the Republican Party, Gurney finally manages with this play to bridge the gap between his genres of choice, creating a wonderfully overwrought comedy that retains an edge from start to finish.

It is never a question of whether or not Mary (Kristine Nielsen) is truly crazy; it seemed fairly obvious to me, although others may disagree. When we first meet her, she is a shell of a woman, rocking back and forth and mostly oblivious to the world around her. However, a case of mistaken identity firmly returns Mary to the land of the living. A question still remains, though: Is the newly "reborn" Mary living in the same world as those around her?

Nielsen--who, for my money, is one of the best theatre actresses we have in New York--is deeply affecting as a woman who fell victim to the silence of an icy patrician world, never knowing how to fit in or what to do to please the people she loved. She is reminiscent of Miss Haversham, desperately clinging to the only time that she was happy because it is the only thing that can define her.

In a welcome return to the stage after a few dormant years, Signourney Weaver does an astute job playing Mary's cousin with ulterior motives. She works very hard to make sure that her character--a woman who longs to resurrect the glory of her past--never feels like a one-dimensional ice princess, and the progression she makes throughout the show never feels anything less than utterly genuine. Michael Esper is terrific as her son, a young man who isn't comfortable being the "last hope" of the once-great family. His scenes with Nielsen, who projects the buoyancy of a bobby soxer around him, are delightful and truly heartfelt. Mitchell Greenberg and Myra Lucretia Taylor both shine in supporting roles, and the production is directed with careful precision by frequent Gurney collaborator Jim Simpson.

When Mary finally achieves the validation of her family--something she has longed for since childhood--she finds her voice. With this exciting new work, it appears that A.R. Gurney is finding his voice once again.

Tickets: Ticket Central
Subject to availability, students with a valid ID can purchase tickets for $15 one hour prior to curtain at the box office. Limit 1 per person.
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission
Through June 17

Cameron Kelsall is a guest reviewer for this blog. He also runs the blog Theatre Snobbery at its Finest, which can be read at tsnob.blogspot.com.

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