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Mary Page Marlowe

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 12, 2018

Blair Brown and Brian Kerwin
Photo by Joan Marcus

Playwright Tracy Letts's Mary Page Marlowe, opening tonight at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater, caroms every which way through and around the course of the lifetime of its title character. In 11 non-linear episodic scenes, and with the leading role played at various times by six different actresses (plus one baby doll), the 90-minute play paints a portrait of one woman's struggle to free herself of the expectations of others and to take charge of her own life.

You might think of the play as an exemplar of Henry David Thoreau's observation that most of us lead lives of quiet desperation, or possibly as a case study about the eternal debate over the relative influence of nature and nurture. But as a fully realized theatrical work, at least as it is being presented here, it is frustratingly thin and psychologically shallow, offering far more style than substance.

There are non-sequential scenes that show us Mary Page as an infant and as a young girl being reared by a dickish, alcoholic father (Nick Dillenburg) and a dismissive mother (Grace Gummer). As she grows up, we learn she has become an alcoholic herself, that she has been married three times, that she has gone through a string of unfulfilling extramarital affairs, and that she has, in her own fumbling way, raised a daughter who seems to have turned out all right and a son who hasn't.

A Baby Boomer growing up in Ohio, the 19-year-old Mary Page (Emma Geer) expresses to her girlfriends that she is full of "hope and love and dreams." She has already turned down a marriage proposal because, "I'm interested in other things; it's not like that's my only choice in life." Yet less than two decades later (in a scene in which she is played by Tatiana Maslany), she is telling her psychotherapist (Marcia DeBonis), "I just think that as a woman, a lot of our roles get stipulated for us, and there's only one way to be a wife, be a daughter, be a mom, be a lover."

But these are just sketchy pieces of biographical information. With a character study, it is how these facts are presented that makes all the difference. And herein lie some problems. It's not necessarily gimmicky for Letts to have his central character played by multiple actresses, representing her at various times in her life. It's been done successfully before; look at what Edward Albee was able to do with Three Tall Women. But as there often are other female characters interacting with Mary Page in the individual scenes, we frequently and distractingly need to figure out which one of them is supposed to be her at any given moment. Between that and the play's eschewing of a traditional temporal frame of reference, Letts asks a lot of the audience. We shouldn't need a road map to know which year in Mary Page's life is being depicted. Yet at any given moment, she might be an infant, or any of the ages of 12, 27, 36, 40, 44, 50, 59, 63, or 69.

Of all the Mary Page Marlowes, the one most able to turn her into a three-dimensional character is the always-excellent Blair Brown, who plays her at the ages of 59, 63, and 69 and who is ably abetted by Brian Kerwin as husband #3. In Ms. Brown's portrayal, we see the few moments of self-assuredness and calm in a life marked by choppy waters and poor decisions. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that Ms. Brown is the only one of the Mary Page actresses who performed the role in the play's original production two years ago at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

No one is exactly the same at every stage of their life, of course, but we all develop certain quirks and mannerisms that we retain. We need these to help us recognize Mary Page through all of the time warps. Yet neither the others performing the role nor director Lila Neugebauer have been able to find that common thread. There are elements of dialog that allow us to connect the dots, but these are not enough to offset this lack, and the production, while efficient, is rarely satisfying and often confusing. Mary Page Marlowe comes off as just another zhlub making her way through an ordinary life, which might explain the play's unremarkable and abrupt ending. Her later years show some sign of self-acceptance, but she hasn't learned much through her life's journey, and, unfortunately, neither have we.

Mary Page Marlowe
Through August 26
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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