Marie and Bruce
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 30, 2011
Part of Wallace Shawn’s genius is his ability to depict people whose actions are thoughtless, or excessively selfish, or even wholly reprehensible, with such charisma and charm that they become the most sympathetic characters on stage. Take Aunt Dan of Aunt Dan & Lemon and her admiration for the ingenuity of the Nazi death camps; or Jack of The Designated Mourner and his sympathy towards the murderous regime of the unnamed Latin American country in which he resides, for fear that the revolution of the lower class would eradicate his comfortable lifestyle; or Ben, the narrator of Grasses of A Thousand Colors, who cannot accept that his contribution to the world of science—creating more food by genetically-adjusting animals of certain species to eat each other—has so horrifically disrupted man’s digestive enzymes that people are rapidly wasting away. These very dark and often funny entertainments persuade us to see things from their protagonists’ morally dubious points of view, and it’s scary all that we have in common.
Marie and Bruce, an early play of Shawn’s from 1978, brings everyday savagery to the surface in a less overtly political fashion. With Bruce asleep on the other side of the bed, Marie begins the play by announcing to the audience, “Let me tell you something. I find my husband so God damned irritating that I’m planning to leave him.” We follow her—and less frequently, him—throughout the day leading up to this decisive moment. Most of our time is spent at their friend Frank’s dinner party where the couple gets separated in a colloquial fun house whose mirrors reflect both quotidian and turbulent truths. But unlike many of Shawn’s other plays where the characters often begrudgingly accept some bit of reality, Marie and Bruce reminds us how very long it takes us—or at the very least, our emotional lives—to change.
This is a literal truth. However, audiences are often desirous of, and tend to expect, theatrical truth: for example, life lessons learned and assimilated throughout the play so that they can witness a transformation of character. Another literal truth is that many people hold their spouses in great contempt for reasons even they cannot fully fathom. Marie is almost apoplectic, brimming with a rageful disgust at her husband that borders on profundity. But hate, in the form of, say, relentless obloquy, is not easy to watch. And just like love, hate’s mark of authenticity is its unimaginative monotony. This too is a challenge for the dramatist trying to convey such real day-to-day emotions.
In The New Group’s current revival—a stylish and generous production, cleverly staged by Scott Elliott—the winsome Marisa Tomei chirps Marie’s expletive-laden dialogue with admirable variety. The aging-well Frank Whaley gives some weary weight to Bruce’s niceties, and makes him seem like, by some other lady, he might be construed as “a catch.” However, two of Shawn’s best speeches become comic highlights of the play when delivered by Tina Benko and Cindy Katz, two guests at the dinner party. Janet (Benko) describes an avant-garde salon she co-hosts in which attendees are locked in individual cages in individual rooms and are, at random, titillated, tortured, or bored by the verbal and physical language of their comely young hostess; Ann (Katz) has an increasingly exasperated rant about the social coercion involved in expressing delight for birthday gifts you may already have or just simply hate.
The aforementioned speeches, which do well to off-set Marie’s vituperations, are characteristic of the writer’s more recent work and say far more than I have encapsulated above. Wallace Shawn is one of the most important playwrights of his generation and has yet to receive the accolades doled out to many of his less ambitious contemporaries. I’m eager to see more of his work in New York. Marie and Bruce is certainly worthy of a revival. Now will someone here please produce Grasses of a Thousand Colors, his latest and in my opinion most thrilling work to date? How about a complete retrospective at the Signature? Nothing in the theatre is more gratifying than seeing a terribly good artist become great.