'Mrs. Murray's Menagerie': Theater Review

Courtesy of Ben Arons Photography
Cast of 'Mrs. Murray's Menagerie'
Purposeful banality, all too expertly achieved.
5/11/2019

The latest creation from acclaimed theatrical troupe The Mad Ones concerns a focus group meeting about a 1970s children's television show featuring animal puppet characters.

Anyone who has ever participated in a focus group knows that the experience wears thin very quickly. You're barraged with a series of queries to which you're expected to give immediate answers, usually of the glib, reductive variety. The questioning often becomes minutely detailed and repetitive and, depending on the topic being discussed, your interest wanes at one point or another.

With their latest ensemble effort, the acclaimed theatrical troupe The Mad Ones has replicated the process all too realistically. Attempting to infuse sly satire and well-observed characterizations into its purposefully banal mix, Mrs. Murray's Menagerie takes what seems like a very long time to get nowhere interesting.

The Mad Ones seem to be developing an unusual specialty in that this piece is very similar to the group's last effort, Miles for Mary (that play, depicting the minutiae of a series of school administration meetings, at least had a somewhat compelling narrative). While the company's attention to detail is admirable, their work feels like the theatrical equivalent of — go on, call me a philistine — a Frederick Wiseman documentary. The authenticity is undeniable, but it makes for tedious viewing.

Set in the late 1970s in a nondescript community center, Mrs. Murray's Menagerie concerns a focus group discussion revolving around a children's television show featuring a cast of animal puppets alongside its human host. The participants are a half-dozen parents whose children watch the show. They're tasked with answering questions posed in rapid-fire fashion by a moderator (Brad Heberlee) and his hapless assistant (Marc Bovino), who frantically writes the answers on a blackboard despite having one arm in a sling.  

Over coffee and donuts, the parents (played by Phillip James Brannon, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Carmen M. Herlihy, January LaVoy and Stephanie Wright Thompson, a few of whom had a hand in creating the piece) offer their thoughts on such things as the show's characters ("Mr. Face is creepy," one complains), themes, storyline and even its music. The last query prompts the playing of the show's theme song in full (which, to composer Justin Ellington and lyricist Dalto's credit, is suitably excruciating). The discussion at times becomes truly bogged down in the weeds, with the participants debating which of the puppets are Caucasian and which are black and whether one character had an "afro tuft" or simply "bear hair."

During the course of these less than momentous exchanges, the participants, a diverse lot, reveal their own personalities in ways both subtle and overt. As with Miles for Mary, there's a lot of passive aggression on display, most blatantly by the macho Roger (Curnette), who bristles with anger when one of the women points out that he often disagrees with the rest of the group. He quietly sulks for the rest of the session before making a condescending gesture of feigned friendliness to the offending party as he leaves the room.

Although all the ensemble members deliver finely detailed, canny performances featuring welcome doses of understated humor, there's too little substance in the play to make us care about their characters. The endless discussion about the children's show quickly becomes excruciatingly dull; but not as much as the final 10 minutes, depicting the meeting's wrap-up and the clean-up afterwards. As the group members slowly fill out survey forms and make their quiet goodbyes, you desperately long for something, anything, to happen.  

As with so many devised theater pieces, Mrs. Murray's Menagerie seems more designed to give pleasure to its performers than the audience. You can certainly admire the specificity of the actors' choices and the admirably precise staging by Lila Neugebauer, reminiscent of her superb work on such plays as The Wolves. But the company seems to be aiming at low-hanging fruit. If they keep going in this direction, their next show is likely to be set in a Department of Motor Vehicles waiting room.

Venue: Ars Nova at Greenwich House, New York
Cast: Marc Bovino, Phillip James Brannon, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Brad Heberlee, Carmen M. Herlihy, January LaVoy, Stephanie Wright Thompso
Creators: The Mad Ones, Phillip James Brannon, Brad Heberlee, Carmen M. Herlihy, January LaVoy
Director: Lila Neugebauer
Set designers: You-Shin Chen, Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting designer: Mike Inwood
Sound designer: Stowe Nelson
Presented by Ars Nova