"People have been telling me to shut up since I was four years old," says Mary Pat Gleason at the top of her new solo show, Stopping Traffic, at the Vineyard Theatre. Though this line elicits appreciative chuckles from the audience, it doesn't take Gleason long to prove that there's a legitimate reason people have been saying this to her for decades.
The show's problem - and, one suspects, hers - lies less in what she says than how she says it. The central story of this compact memoir, which has been directed with colorful, comic sensitivity by Lonny Price, concerns Gleason's 20-year battle with bipolar disorder, with her career and her life in almost constant jeopardy. And she's survived it all with grace, humor, and an indomitable spirit.
This is unquestionably the stuff of a poignant, powerful solo vehicle. But if Gleason is a sterling role model for anyone who must overcome crippling internal difficulties in order to succeed, her personality and her playwriting don't mesh well enough to make a convincing argument here.
Oh, she's highly likeable, cutting a brightly energetic stage figure and demonstrating no difficulty in holding a show for an hour and a half. But her roundabout, rambling nature is so oppressive, you might well find yourself wanting to tell her to shut up and get to the point.
It takes what seems like hours for her to establish her initial New York career as an Off-Off-Broadway actress and eventual soap writer and story editor (or, to use her term, "wrangler"). And just as soon as you have a firm grasp on that, she flies off to Los Angeles to begin her life anew as a movie and television performer. Both segments drone, and involve far too many characters never developed well enough for us to care about. (Who is her alcoholic boyfriend? Why did this other person come to L.A.?) Price displays infinite patience in his direction, doing more than anyone should have to in smoothing out Gleason's utterly unpaced and unfocused script.
Price does what Gleason doesn't, and gives the work some much-needed consistency. But there's only so much he can do with things like references to Eastern mysticism (it's both an eventually forgotten subplot and the source of pained-pithy lines like "You can't escape your karma") and hugely hoary humor ("It's so difficult to tell the difference between being an enabler and being Irish") that would impede any show's springing to life.
It only does so during moments of true conflict, which arise primarily during Gleason's professionally oriented bouts with her mental illness. When her livelihood and life are on the line, her contretemps with casting directors, studio physicians, and other film folk make for some genuinely surprising - and intermittently harrowing - moments. And her reenaction of the breakdown (and subsequent reconstruction) she experienced while filming the 1996 movie adaptation of The Crucible is a theatrical triumph uncommon in even the best solo outings.
Otherwise, precious little excitement escapes the stage. Far more representative are the long stretches in which she tries to recreate her spells and psychotic breaks, including one particularly painful one in which her personality divides into two halves, Gleason and Glasson, while under the inspection of Dr. Frye Baby Frye. (No, I'm serious.) It's this sequence, which lasts roughly as long as did the War of the Roses, that the show's title is explained as one of Gleason's more interesting delusions.
It is not, however, persuasive enough to sustain an evening. Neither are most of Gleason's other recollections, which render Stopping Traffic less instructive than numbingly navel-gazing. If Gleason too seldom reveals her inner self, at least she gives you plenty of exteriors to choose from, even if their sheer, untethered variety does little more than make you wonder whether her real problem is that she was never treated for Attention Deficit Disorder.