Mrs. Mayfield's Fifth-Grade Class of '93 Twenty-Year Reunion is energized--- as an evening so often is--- by a Michael Jackson song. It happens about twenty minutes in, after all the "guests" have arrived, and it's accompanied by a dance routine that will raise your hopes for the theatrical event that follows it. The song in question, a hit single called "Will You Be There," is known for gracing the end credits of Free Willy, right after the lovable orca jumps over a wall of rocks to return to his family out at sea.
You'll recall that Free Willy was released in 1993. So if you were in fifth grade then, you're about thirty years old now, and "Will You Be There" is likely to have passed through your ears on heavy rotation for a while. Certainly, the crew of eccentrics that make up Mrs. Mayfield know it by heart, and when a few of them join a dance line to perform the whole routine from the music video, there's an odd thrill and even a poignancy to the shared nostalgia.
Indeed, the experience is shared more acutely than usual, since we are not inside a theater. We're at an apartment in Astoria, with a large living room and a bedroom down the hall. There are couches and several chairs. There's even a kitchen stocked with chili, wine and beer. All the action happens around you, in the old tradition of immersive site-specific theater, which includes varying degrees of, yes, audience interaction. Not to worry, though: believing that such things ought to be "safe, sane, and consensual," the Caps Lock company has given you the option of wearing a red sticker, which means, essentially, "please don't talk to me." (A green sticker, of course, means "please do.") Either way, whatever your real age, you are one of the guests at this grade school reunion, and as you freely move throughout the space, you are sharing it with Caps Lock actors cloaked in a wide range of quirky personas.
Given the intimate nature of the piece, and the way it unfolds in real time, I'm inclined to withhold most of the details of the plot. Suffice it to say that there are married couples, soon-to-be-broken-up couples, secret couples, polyamorous couples, and plenty of resentments and crushes to go around. In Mariah MacCarthy's loose script, the action quickly heats up as the civilized facades deteriorate. One of MacCarthy's clear aims is to show how, no matter how accomplished we become, we're never too far from the dramas (and even horrors) of childhood.
But actually, Mrs. Mayfield reminded me less of fifth grade than it did of the crucible known as, well, college. In those years, the prospects of sexual liberation, substance abuse, and changed identities are as tantalizing as they are scary. Mrs. Mayfield revels in all of those, and it's easy to see why the actors seem to be having the times of their lives. In this playground of competing objectives, each character gets a loud, cathartic moment that probes some part of his or her inner emotional life. Everybody's stakes are enormously high, with conflicts emerging out of the blue and quickly turning into shouting matches and even violent encounters.
It's difficult to make this consistently plausible and compelling, especially in such small quarters, and at times, Mrs. Mayfield feels more like an extended acting class improv exercise than a play. You may find yourself, as I did, longing for a more grounded or identifiable character to emerge, or at the least, for a stronger commitment to the comic absurdity of the situation. You might even wish, oddly, that the actors were working harder to make you feel uncomfortable, instead of indulging in the glee of bad behavior. I admire the company's decision to put on a site-specific work, and they've decked the place out well; but the proper site for this play would seem to be a college dorm, not the apartment of a thirty year-old woman.
The company is lovely, however. All of the actors have worked hard on credible portraits of their people, with particularly impressive work from the sweet-faced Jesse Geguzis and Lindsey Austen, the amusingly wound-up Elizabeth Seldin, and the brooding Jordan Tierney. I would've especially liked more time with Tierney's character Joey, who has by far the most poignant and ultimately convincing backstory of the bunch. His restrained melancholy intrigued me so fully that I skipped a louder scene across the room so I could stay near the "coloring table" as Tierney and Geguzis played out a quiet reminiscence about someone dear to them.
Like all dinner parties, Mrs. Mayfield works best as a communal effort, and in this case I took a surprising amount of pleasure from traveling about the space with my fellow audience members, every one a total stranger. To get to the apartment's small bedroom, we had to walk down a narrow hallway, which meant that for one crucial bedroom scene, a line started to gather outside the door. This meant, of course, that we couldn't all watch the scene, and so a few of the folks in front began to whisper updates to the rest of us. ("He's totally into her." "Except he's married." "Oh no, her hand's moving." Etc.) In real life, I suppose this sort of thing would be terribly rude. But then again, given all the nutty things that happen at this wild reunion, eavesdropping seems downright civilized.