Theater Reviews

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Playwrights Horizon, New York
Through June 17


Halfway through A.R. Gurney's new play, "Crazy Mary," a character asks: "What is this, Tennessee Williams?"

In a word, no. But one can understand the confusion. This doesn't seem like Gurney, either, or at least not Gurney in his prime.

Yes, there's a trademark group of WASP characters that remain front and center throughout. And relationships still are being explored in typical Gurney patter. But the absurdist-inspired hole at the center of "Crazy Mary" throws the production out of kilter and the playwright off his game.

That's unfortunate because "Crazy Mary" has no shortage of potential. That much is obvious in Act 1 as the ever-impressive Sigourney Weaver makes a memorable entrance. She's cast as Lydia, a moneyed, middle-age matriarch from Buffalo who has journeyed to a Boston-area sanitarium to assess the situation of her second cousin, the titular Mary.

From the get-go, Lydia's comments are grounded in common sense. But by having them conveyed in a borderline obnoxious manner, the character's flawed nature proves fascinating and repulsive -- and utterly recognizable.

Lydia is accompanied by her twentysomething son, Skip (Michael Esper), who uses rapid-fire one-liners and college-boy intellectualism to deflect embarrassment and incredulity as his mother grills the establishment's doctor (Mitchell Greenberg). As the guardian for Mary, nevermind her considerable monies, Lydia is eager to hear what Jerome -- as the good M.D. wishes to be called -- has to offer.

It ultimately leads to Lydia and Skip's meeting with the near-catatonic Mary (Kristine Niel-sen), who is accompanied to the visitors' room by jocular nurse Pearl (Myra Lucretia Taylor). Ironically, it is Pearl who has come to think of Mary as family throughout her decades-long stay.

The stage seems set for an examination of responsibility, guilt, secrets and the inevitable fracturing of a mother-son dynamic. Further, it appears that everyone has an agenda, making for a palpable sense of intrigue.

And that's when Gurney takes a detour into Looney Tunes territory, with unbelievable transformations producing characters with no discernible motivation and juggling everything from B.F. Skinner-like theories to a "Harold and Maude" setup.

In addition, Gurney's manner of slipping between near-slapstick humor and themes of utmost gravity is awkward at best. Worse, he continually manipulates audience sentiment by turning logic on its head and then daring anyone to not see its allegedly whimsical charm.

Thankfully, enough distractions surface to keep the production afloat, starting with Weaver. She effortlessly conveys how Lydia is left clueless to her own hypocrisy, thanks to self-absorption. Exuding condescension and appeal in equal measure, Weaver's funny/sad expressions and vocal shadings make what could have been a cliched dragon lady into a work of art.

The rest of the cast ranges from fine to fair. But if Taylor and Greenberg get more opportunities to shine, it should be noted that Esper and Nielsen are hobbled by characters that never seem flesh-and-blood.

Director Jim Simpson, a.k.a. Weaver's husband, tries hard to keep the action brisk, and to some degree succeeds in distracting from the script's flaws. John Lee Beatty's attractive set and Claudia Brown's eclectic costumes also help fight that battle.

But there is no escaping the fact that Gurney is running out of steam, as indicated with last year's disappointing "Indian Blood." Perhaps like the addled "Mary," he needs to spend some time in a quiet place and figure out his future.

CRAZY MARY
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
Credits:
Playwright: A.R. Gurney
Director: Jim Simpson
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Claudia Brown
Lighting designer: Brian Aldous
Sound designer: Jill BC DuBoff
Music: Michael Holland
Cast:
Lydia: Sigourney Weaver
Mary: Kristine Nielsen
Skip: Michael Esper
Jerome: Mitchell Greenberg
Pearl: Myra Lucretia Taylor
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