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I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. — Joan Didion, quoted in opening of Tracy Letts's Mary Page Marlowe, which shows its titular character jumping back and forth between the "people she used to be" in order to better understand the trajectory of her life.
Mary Page Marlowe
Blair Brown and Brian Kerwin at one of the older Mary Page Marlowes, and during one of the more upbeat stages of her life. (Photo:Joan Marcus)
Mary Page Marlowe doesn't have the fire and fury of August Osage County. But any theatergoer who appreciates fine acting and willing to tackle an challengingly structured play won't want to miss seeing it during its run now at 2nd Stage.

Like August Osage County, Mary Page Marlowe could be classified as a dysfunctional family play. After all, any story about a woman married three times is obviously going to have plenty of familial problems to air out. However, it more accurately fits the genre of stage memoir.

The woman whose story Tracy Letts has opted to dramatize isn't an especially unique or exceptional character. In fact, as she tells the therapist she seeks out at one of her life's many troubling intersections, she sees herself as so unexceptional that "someone else could have written my diary."

What is most unique and exceptional about this play is the way Letts has structured it to make the viewers feel as if they were joining Mary Page as she rummages through a shoe box full of memorabilia from various stages of her life that have been tossed in there pellmell rather than neatly organized like a family photo album — shades of the above quoted advice by Joan Didion.

To dramatize the 40 years of this unexceptional life covered in just 90 minutes and 11 scenes, we have the metaphors of a big jigsaw puzzle and a patchwork quilt. As the pieces of a jigsaw are randomly assembled to eventually reveal a unified picture, so the scenes covering turning points in Mary Page's life skip back and forth.

The quilt metaphor reveals that unlike a quilt patched together by many stitcher, the hands patching together this quilt belong to one stitcher but that this one r is indeed a different person at these crucially different times of her life— and, as fabric, colors and stitching unify a quilt, so the direction our lives take is as often determined by familial patterns and circumstances beyond our control as by our own decisions.

To underscore and bold face this idea of the multiple personas inhabited in one lifetime and the idea of rummaging through less than neatly organized memorabilia, Mary's memoir not only skips back and forth in time (between 1946 and 2005), but Letts's script calls for Mary Page to be played by different actors at these haphazardly presented turning points.

This large scale casting, which only the playwright's stature makes possible, and non-linear structure are what makes this both an intriguing and frustrating play.

It's intriguing to watch the six excellent actors the show is blessed with fusing even as they individualize the multiple Mary players — Blair Brown takes on Mary at 59, 63 and 69, Tatjana Maslanyat 27 and 36; and Susan Poufar at 40 and 44. But even those who get just one scene, make strong impressions, as does Kellie Overbey who at age 50 faces a major trauma not part of most other unexceptional every-women's lives.

In these days when economics dictate that the smaller the cast the better, it's also intriguing to see the cast rounded out by a dozen other actors as various other people in Mary's life (her parents, husbands, children, college friends, a lover, a shrink, a nurse).

Given that the play's 11 short scenes sandwiched into just 90 minutes leaves it up to the audience to fill in details and catch on to a line here and there that connects to another scene. Hence, attention must be paid to everything said and left unsaid. As an example, take the opening 1986 scene in which Susan Poufars 40-year-old Mary breaks the news of the family's pending breakup to her daughter Wendy and son Louis children (Kayli Carter and Ryan Foust). Her rather vague explanation to Wendy about why she lost her job and final comment to Louis that "sometimes we do things we shouldn't do" reconnects in Scene 8 between 27-year-old Tatiana Maslany and her Ohio boss Dan (Gary Wilmes).

Mary's sense of life also being not so much what she does deliberately but things that just happen over which she has no control are again summed up by Maslany's Mary, but this time her 36-year-old self to her Shrink (Marcia Debonis)—. . ."truth is you and I pretend I make decisions about the direction of my life. I don't. I haven't. I didn't decide on any of it. All of it happened to me, and I went along with it, and I, I...I never affected anything, I never altered the course. Like some bird. Like a migrating bird. I just did what seemed natural."

Even paying close attention can make connecting all these puzzle and patchwork pieces frustratingly confusing and, yes, gimmicky. But director Lila Neugebauer does a fine job steering the six Marys through their shared memoir, and letting the supporting players make the most of their interactions with them. But ultimately Mr. Letts's reliance on a casting and story-telling structure and the popularity of the 90-minute time frame, does leave one wondering if he didn't think Mary Page's story was indeed too insignificant and banal to deserve a fuller August Osage County treatment, or at least a more big-bang finale.

Links to Tracy Letts plays reviewed at CurtainUp
Killer Joe 1998
August Osage County 2008 Publitzer Prize winner
Superior Donuts 2009
Man From Nebraska2017, also at 2nd Stage

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Mary Page Marlowe by Tracy Letts
Directed By Lila Neugebauer
Cast: David Aaron Baker (Ray), Blair Brown (Mary Page Marlowe-59, 63, 69), Kayli Carter (Wendy Gilbert), Audrey Corsa (Connie), Marcia Debonis (Shrink), Nick Dillenburg (Ed Marlowe), Ryan Foust (Louis), Tess Frazer (Lorna), Emma Geer (Mary Page Marlowe-19) Grace Gummer (Roberta Marlowe), Mia Sinclair Jenness (Mary Page Marlowe-12), Brian Kerwin (Andy), Tatiana Maslany (Mary Page Marlowe-27,36), Kellie Overbey (Mary Page Marlowe-50), Susan Pourfar (Mary Page Marlowe-40,44), Maria Elena Ramirez (Nurse), Elliot Villar (Ben), Gary Wilmes (Dan)
Sets: Laura Jellinek
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Tyler Micoleau
Sound:Brandon Wolcott
Original Music: Bray Poor
Stage Manager: Travis Colxson
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
At Second Stage - Tony Kiser Theater 305 West 43rd Street
From 6/19/18; opening 7/12/18; closing 8/12/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/11/18 press preview

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