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Life In A Marital Institution

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Life In A Marital Institution
James Braly
Photo by Jaisen Crockett.

Dinners of sautéed placenta, non-hospital births, and sexless all-night flings with your spouse’s longtime female friend may not sound conventional. But the most shocking thing about James Braly’s one-man play Life in a Marital Institution, which just opened at the Soho Playhouse, is how very everyday it seems.

Years sweep by with a single waggle of Braly’s nimble tongue. (The show isn’t subtitled “20 years of monogamy in one terrifying hour” for nothing.) Tiny flirtations grow into Empire State Building-sized arguments. And the vagaries of lingering affection receive their due - at best - by accident, usually when there’s no other choice at hand.

Yes, you’ve seen all this before - from the point of view of the would-be philanderer, there aren’t many new avenues of adultery to navigate. But despite containing few fresh insights and little in the way of memorable performing - Braly’s approachable demeanor suggests Spalding Gray with an extra-heavy dash of CPA - this show is firm but funny, a carefully wrought examination of that most widely experienced but underrepresented of romantic problems: how to love - and how to hate - the one you’re with.

Without preaching or resorting to shopworn self-help clichés, Braly weaves his loosely knit but compelling personal history of connubial blisters around the spine of his sister’s iron-willed intent to get married - while on her deathbed. Her determination to enter into the very arrangement, for however brief a period, that caused her brother such distress casts a revealing light on the traditions and emotions that most of us too easily take for granted.

Yet this is neither an anti-marriage show nor a pro-marriage show: Braly presents the evidence, with curt even-handedness, and lets you decide yourself whether he, his wife Susan, both, or neither is in the wrong. From the Meet Cute in the Hungarian Pastry Shop to an infidelity-threatened European vacation, from their torture of a befuddled couples’ counselor to domestic partnership and devotion, from living life on the edge to living life naturally, each anecdote presents another facet of the rift that divides Braly and Susan - as well as the passions that (occasionally) bind them together.

The flippancy of the title and the subtitle notwithstanding, this all makes for an unusually complex evening, albeit one that’s written, performed, and directed (by Hal Brooks) more informally than might be ideal. Only Braly’s crisply tailored shirt and suit lend the air of authority; his rampant nonchalance and tidal wave-of-consciousness scripting and delivery generally impart the impression of a single cousin entertaining at a family reunion more than they do a get-better guru who’s lived the wedded life the hard way.

But that disconnect becomes vital, enhancing Braly’s inherent Everyman qualities with each new detail that’s revealed. He’s not onstage because he’s different from anyone else, but because he’s the same. Without speaking the words outright, he acknowledges that his marriage hasn’t been all he wanted, because no one’s ever is - his sister is the one who had it really tough.

When Braly’s introspection flows most heavily in the show’s final minutes, it soothes rather than stings. His light touch fluttering above the dark shadows of his discontentment reinforces the idea that everyone in any marital institution - or trying to gain admittance - is exactly the same kind of crazy. The brand of structured insanity and unstructured sanity that gave rise to Braly’s show makes that diagnosis not only palatable, but downright enjoyable.


Life In A Marital Institution
Through August 31
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street (6th Ave & Varick / 7th Avenue)
Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets at www.sohoplayhouse.com