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Crazy Mary

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Sigourney Weaver and Kristine Nielsen
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It's just as easy being trapped within a bank account as within the walls of a psychiatric hospital, or so A.R. Gurney would have us believe. In his new play Crazy Mary, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, the American theatre's foremost documenter of the woes of the wealthy and WASPish shows that an unflagging adoration of the past and the romance of the almighty dollar aren't as far removed as you might think. And in both cases, the cure is the same: moving forward.

Gurney himself, though, is not above taking as many backward steps as necessary to make this point, and that's when trouble arises. The problem is not of spirit and style; in both areas Crazy Mary more closely relates to Gurney's earlier plays, such as The Dining Room and What I Did Last Summer, probing into the lacking lives of the well-off, than it does his more recent forays into American political vivisection (Mrs. Farnsworth) or candy-coated childhood story spinning (Indian Blood). It's just that excepting the performance of Kristine Nielsen as the title character, you'd need to return to 1977 for much else about this production, which has been blandly directed by Jim Simpson, to feel fresh.

Nielsen, for all her unquenchable, fluttery charm, is not faced with or executing a groundbreaking task. Her Mary has been confined to a Massachusetts mental hospital for the rich for over 30 years, a sizable trust in her name funding both her and the institution. When the fund's new legal guardian, Lydia (Sigourney Weaver), arrives one day with her son Skip (Michael Esper) to investigate the hospital and the second cousin they've ignored for years, it's ostensibly to ensure she's being well treated. But as Lydia is facing financial ruin in trying to put Skip through Harvard, her motives are quickly called into question.

Mitchell Greenberg, Kristine Nielsen, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Michael Esper, and Sigourney Weaver
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Nothing about the way the story unfolds is at all unique - even the hospital administrators we meet, a doctor (Mitchell Greenberg) who sees this all as fodder for a book and a nurse (Myra Lucretia Taylor) willingly infected by Mary's delusions, register as little more than dust-covered archetypes. It's of no surprise that Gurney soon all but begs us to ask ourselves who the crazy one really is, and distribute our sympathies accordingly.

Pulling Mary, as if by strings, through alternating bouts of catatonia and vivid recollections of her privileged upbringing, Gurney insists no undue conclusions be drawn. It turns out that her state is partially the result of emotional scarring incurred as a result of lost love, and a condition that may well be reversed at any time, so it becomes something of a waiting game: How long until Mary's relationship with kindred spirit Skip, who hates his fast-track education and his goal-oriented girlfriend, and longs for the simplicity of working on a farm, reaches the boiling point?

This us-versus-them aesthetic does not allow for much variety in the plotting, and the performances end up similarly constrained. Greenberg and Taylor do as well as possible within their imposing strictures, but Esper overeagerly plays up Skip's dissatisfaction with the world, transcending youthful rebellion in favor of a gruff, middle-aged archness that isn't right for a constantly evolving young man.

More crucially, Weaver is still straining to find a balance between greedy, caring, and warily concerned; she has not yet determined how best to guide Lydia from thinking about herself to thinking about others, the play's unavoidably thin, but central, dramatic pilgrimage. The late-play turnarounds that require this for their fuel peter out just as the depths of Mary's dementia should be propelling it toward an exciting (if ultimately foreseeable) conclusion. So Crazy Mary becomes what, at its core, it's not: Mary's play.

This could be catastrophic with an actress of lesser stature in the role, but Nielsen finds so many colors in Mary's muddled grey matter that the play almost rebalances itself as a result. When she first appears, unable (or unwilling) to speak to the strangers around her, she's a frightened toddler wandering through a waking dream. But as she lets herself be slowly reawakened to the real world, she matures before your eyes into a vivacious, loquacious woman who just might be the smartest (and sanest) one in the room.

Never does Nielsen give you any reason to question this transformation; it becomes the natural progression of a woman for whom lasting love has proven so elusive that its reemergence can't help but change everything. But without Lydia's own change of heart occupying the forefront, Crazy Mary too often becomes an old-fashioned, and old-feeling, tragedy about the misunderstood souls we can leave in our wake, rather than Gurney's intended reminder that, whatever your economic standing, properly apportioned love can redeem the heart and mind alike.

Crazy Mary
Through June 17
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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