Tuesday, April 05, 2011

THEATER: Marie and Bruce

Photo/Monique Carboni
Though they share the same bed, there's a deep disconnect between Marie (Marisa Tomei) and Bruce (Frank Whaley). If that's not apparent from the first moment you see them in Marie and Bruce, playwright Wallace Shawn quickly clears up any confusion with Marie's opening monologue, a long harangue in which she repeatedly calls him a "shit" and a "cocksucker." That Bruce ignores her mocking shows either how depressingly inured he is to life with her -- and she to him, to have built up such an arsenal of insults -- or, more realistically, given the introspective style of much of Shawn's work, shows how much of this relationship is built on silence, i.e., the festering things not said aloud. That both are possible is actually a credit to Scott Elliot's vocally explicit, emotionally implicit direction, which magnifies the play's psychic rift by leaving the audience unsure of what to believe. (For instance, Marie insists that Bruce's trousers reek of urine, and he ends up changing pants, but because there are no visible stains, we have to take her word for it.)

This uncertainty is especially effective given that the play (save for a few monologues) is hyperrealistic, much like the film My Dinner with Andre, which Wallace completed two years after writing Marie and Bruce in 1979. In fact, the majority of the play takes place at the dinner party of a friend, Frank (Adam Trese): philosophical conversations and small talk take center stage (around designer Derek McLane's slowly spinning round table) as what we know about Marie -- she plans to leave Bruce after this party -- and what we are finding out about Bruce -- he's a likable guy with some ugly vices -- provide ominous, almost suspenseful subtext. With smooth segues from Shawn and gentle lighting shifts from Elliott (who has always been a genius with crowd scenes), an entire evening of highs and lows fly by, and as the diners grow fatigued, so do the cracks and separations between them, particularly with Marie, who quietly falls asleep at the table, alone in a sea of people.

Toward the end of the dinner, one of the guests bursts out with the philosophical conceit of Marie and Bruce, stressing that we don't always feel what we're actually feeling -- that is, because we're stuck processing things in our head, confused by, say, societal values that insist we should feel a certain way, we become separated from our true selves. Both Marie and Bruce are dependent on one another to some degree; have they mistaken that, somehow, for love? Thankfully, Shawn doesn't have any other guests blurt out the answer; instead, he doubles-down on subtleties that a wearied Tomei seems to dredge out of her soul in her post-dinner confrontation with Whaley, who, in turn, shows an anger and helplessness that sheds some light on an earlier revelation of his involving waitresses with low self-esteem and hotel-room voyeurism. These are just flawed people, after all; they, like us, don't have the answers. However, in watching them muddle through their relationship, we, unlike them, can have a good time.

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