The Midtown International Theatre Festival
The echoes of Edward Albee throughout J.B. Edwards’s imperfect but engaging new play at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, Requiem for a Marriage, are not unintentional. From the opening lines between Jean and Adam Smiley that refer to a “bit about the kid” to their rapidly dissolving marriage and struggling to discern the difference between actuality and fantasy, Edwards has unquestionably intended this both as a modern analog to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and a warning about all that can go wrong in short-sighted and long-running marriages. If this play doesn’t compare to Albee’s in any real way, for at least for its first act it stands nicely on its own.
Edwards has crafted a compellingly unsettling vision of the union of psychotherapist Jean (Memory Contento) and novelist Adam (George Tynan Crowley) in its waning weeks, augmented by both the couple’s angry daughter, Erica (Jodie Bentley), and Adam’s mistress-slash-assistant, Margot (Julia Motyka), but rooted in far simpler issues. Adam longs for the quiet and inspiration he needs to write a book that will help him recapture his former glory; Jean longs to connect with him, but the only words that ever escape her mouth are critical. A “lack of laughter” drives Adam into Margot’s arms and apartment, leaving Jean and Erica alone. Neither of these pairings, however, is more prone to lasting happiness than the one that just ended.
Though little happens in the traditional sense, Edwards’s deep exploration of these people’s conflicts and personalities nonetheless make for a tightly packed 75 minutes. But if all the characters act and react in ways as startling as they are realistic, not all the pieces come together. The second act could use another scene or two to better contextualize the utter disintegration of four lives that it chronicles. Despite a blistering fight between Adam and Margot and a truly surprising (and thought-provoking) finale, in which mother and daughter confront a life- and death-altering deception, the breathless pacing of events feels more like a speedy attempt to get the pieces off the board than it does a bloody dramatic checkmate.
Even so, Linda Selman has directed throughout with thoughtfulness and style, keeping scenes brightly acerbic and unfolding fluidly without any of the plentiful arguments seeming like a rehash of what’s gone before. Lighting designer Nadine Charlsen and sound designer David Schulder provide creative assistance with carefully calibrated light pools and waves of classical music that plumb psyches and identify troubles like these characters’ as unavoidable parts of the human condition.
Crowley’s performance, if at times a bit too big for the theater, is one of focused power: arousal, elation, frustration, and rage that all crystallize into a hauntingly recognizable man who’s as unsure of who he is as he is why he married his wife. Bentley and Motyka are nearly as good in their roles, respectively summoning abrasive and erotic outlooks that paint two necessarily contrasting views of contemporary young women. Contento has difficulty matching her costars’ intensity in the first act, when she struggles in vain to reconcile Jean’s shrewish and sympathetic tendencies. She has an easier time after intermission, when Jean’s morphing into independence prevents her from hiding behind comfortable clichés of voice and gesture.
But for the play to have the maximum possible impact, you need to see her - and everyone’s - full journey. For that to happen, Edwards needs to trust more in his characters’ truths than in the gimmicks they employ to avoid reality. That he doesn’t prevents Requiem for a Marriage from reaching its maximum potential, and only heightens its resemblance to the more shattering, inventive, and honest Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But that would be far more damaging if all of this production’s other elements weren’t operating at such a high level.
Requiem for a Marriage