A CurtainUp Review
Marie and Bruce
Because of her lengthy and repetitive verbal assault, one might think at first that Marie suffers from an acute case of Tourette Syndrome and that Bruce is either numb, dumb, or in an induced state of resignation. This is the day that Marie, although she still calls him "darling" has decided to leave Bruce, telling him "I'm sick of you. You're driving me insane! "
When Bruce finally awakens and proceeds to get dressed, he responds to her on-going tirade in a conciliatory manner (also continuing to call her "darling") with "I'm a nice guy, I'm not so bad. Why can't you accept me? I'm only a person." She orders him to make her breakfast and to change his pants because they smell of urine.
This appears to be an unhappy union, to say the least. When Bruce, who is dressing to go out for lunch with his friend Roger, asks Marie if she thinks that she might be mentally ill, " Marie responds with "I know you men need time to yourselves, just to suck each other off in your own little ways."
What is really going on here? Where are these "darlings" headed?
When this early play by Wallace Shawn was first produced in London in 1979 and then in New York at the Public Theater in 1980, critical and public opinion was sharply divided. It's essentially a plot-less, character-driven play in which we are asked to watch a notably incompatible married couple, trapped in a surreal-existential world of their own making, come to terms with their bitter and irresolvable personal conflicts.
Based on your intolerance and impatience with redundant vitriol, you could easily deride Marie and Bruce. But you could also earnestly defend it as an irrefutable eruption of the subconscious. As designed by Derek McLane, the couple's book-filled bedroom may be indicative of their need to understand/explore their love-hate relationship with intellectual validation.
The revival being presented by The New Group isn't going to change the mind of those who can recall the play, but it does provide an opportunity for those receptive to appreciating Shawn's ability to reflect a marriage as hate propelled as it is perpetuated by love. This doesn't, however, absolve the play from being infuriatingly boring.
Beyond the enervating discourse between Marie and Bruce, the play, under the direction of Scott Elliott, also revolves around a cocktail/dinner party attended by a circle of Bruce's friends — an urbane, incessantly chatty group of men and women whose behavior, personalities and conversation are so collectively dull that it prompts Marie to drink too much and get ill. Seated for dinner at a table that revolves slowly on a turntable, we are able to focus on some of the purposefully stupefying talk until it's time to get back to Marie and Bruce.
Marisa Tomei, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in My Cousin Vinny and who has taken on many a gritty stage role as a member of the Naked Angels Theater Company, doesn't get much opportunity to be more than a verbally abusive shrew — except when she's admitting her physical attraction to Bruce.
Bruce is even more unfathomable in his passive-aggressive behavior. However, Whaley gives the role a sly, even sexually ambiguous tone that at least makes Bruce more than a one-dimensional. As a team, they are well-paired to give nuanced texture to their blather as well as to allude to the reasons that keep them in each others thrall.
Understandably, Marie and Bruce is rarely revived, and a film version released in 2004 starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick was generally ignored and/or abhorred. The title characters are indeed easy to abhor, as they resonate throughout the play with the kind of idiotic/neurotic behavior that can be hard to take. But as my own mother used to say about my father, "I can't live with him and I can't live without him." That also sums up the basic issue in this play.
There is a profound passion as well as a purposeful integrity embedded in Shawn's mostly controversial and not always lauded plays (and films). Marie and Bruce can therefore be seen as primary; maybe even as a primal, exercise for the socially and politically motivated playwright who would send chills up and down many of our spines with his scarily persuasive perspective of Nazism in Aunt Dan and Lemon in 1985. More recently he served up some bitter food for thought in The Designated Mourner (1997) in which an insidiously aggressive anti-intellectual movement is seen as heralding the death of our civilization.
Shawn would probably be the first to admit that his bitter edged dramas, leftist essays and political ideology are not the sort to win friends on the right. Only time will tell whether or not he has been or even expects to motivate the other side into action. It is, however, encouraging that two of his deliberately talky and introspectively orchestrated films, My Dinner with Andre (1981 and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) have become cult favorites. Although it starred Vanessa Redgrave, I am not at all familiar with The Fever, which aired in 2007 on HBO.
Shawn's affinity for Bertolt Brecht was exemplified when he translated The Threepenny Opera for a Broadway revival in 2006. One has to assume that any affinity he has with Marie and Bruce is revealed in the way their relationship is both corrupting and supportive, perhaps in the same way as George and Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. If it is easier, however, to become intoxicated by the purge-like sparring of George and Martha, it is more likely that you will simply become intolerant of the more abusive Marie and with the more simply irritating Bruce.
Far be it for me to tell you whether Marie actually leaves Bruce. I'll let the closing word in the great Stephen Sondheim song (from Follies) "Could I Leave You?" help me out. "Guess!"