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Marie and Bruce

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Marisa Tomei and Frank Whaley
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Marriages may be ignited by affection, but what happens when the spouses have to keep themselves running and all that remains is ash? That's the central question of Marie and Bruce, Wallace Shawn's 1979 play about a couple in the throes of dispassion, which The New Group is reviving in a Scott Elliott production that, like the title characters, is alternately bracing and numbing.

Beginning with both in bed, here positioned at the heart of a curious Derek McLane set that suggests they sleep in a library, the play follows Marie (Marisa Tomei) and Bruce (Frank Whaley) through the motions of an atypically typical day. They get up, they go to a party at a friend's house, they go to dinner, they come home. But beneath it all is Marie's percolating desire to finally tell Bruce what she's wanted to almost since they wed: that she's leaving him.

She has her reasons, of course. The day before, he woke her early in the morning to ask where his ancient, malfunctioning typewriter was—she had thrown it out. Today, he's not so keen about making coffee, let alone putting on his clothes. And he's planning to have lunch with his friend Roger, whose "ideas he has about the history of urine and feces in the nineteenth century" do not exactly strike Marie as the height of excitement. In other words, it's not that Bruce has done anything wrong. It's that he's done anything at all.

Like Shawn's other works that have re-emerged at The New Group in recent years, Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Fever, this one draws its dramatic power from its exploration of characters out of step with the rest of the world—and each other. At least some of the time, Elliott inherently understands this; when his staging is at its crispest, the angle of a head or a minute change in vocal tone can grant words bruising new meaning. Whether Marie is talking to Bruce or to us, for example, changes the nature of her complaints drastically, even though her language hardly varies between the disparate audiences.

In either case, Shawn's writing captures, with astringent cleverness, the unfocused anger resulting from exploded expectations, and Marie's desolation at being trapped beside a man she can no longer tolerate. Tomei wrings every drop of frustration from Marie, too, tempering it—just barely—with the understanding softness that lets you see what brought these two together in the first place. In his cheerfully unaware character, Whaley unlocks the exasperating qualities of a man who's always drifting through some other place or time; even the instant he seems most completely engaged, in recollecting the deepest details of a torrid fling he had before he got married, is delivered from a clinical remove. Both he and Marie have forgotten how to feel, but only she recognizes what been lost.

Unfortunately, the vividness of their disaffection does not continue uninterrupted. Diverging from their intimate problems for a while, Shawn examines in a scene set at a party how Marie and Bruce's behavior changes—or, rather, doesn't—when out and about. Here both the play and the production loosen their grip on your attention, and lose sight of the importance of Marie and Bruce in Marie and Bruce.

Elliott lets the pacing slack so that, when Marie spends the better part of 15 minutes asleep on the dinner table, you relate to her in a way you don't anyone else in the scene. Worse, he does not render the supporting characters introduced here, and played by reliable pros like Tina Benko and Adam Trese, with the same rigorous attention to reality that he has the leads. They're caricaturish and cartoony, distractingly false in their illustration of the two-dimensionality Marie is struggling to escape. She describes the parties Bruce drags her to as "a form of warfare," and that's not far off. But if you don't believe the committed vapidity of the partiers' discussions about mundanities ranging from the history of the margarita to the deadening dinner menu, you also can't accept the collateral damage Marie sees everywhere she goes.

The final scene further blurs the private and the public in a cramped, upscale cafĂ©, where Marie tries at last to signal her displeasure while Bruce is distracted by the scatological ramblings of the two men sitting next to them. Though more successful, this scene likewise does little to reinforce the debilitating nature of the strictures of forced gentility. Tomei is almost too bold, too reasonable—you don't experience the expiation of her inner turmoil as much as you do the continuation of a life you already know is built on rage.

Such nuances—and getting them right—are everything in a play such as this one, which demands you peer beyond life's deceptive pleasantries and into the corrosive truth simmering just beneath its surface. Elliott is willing to critique but not probe, so the scenes that require a more invasive touch, and are at the very heart of the work, lack the punch they need to maintain the tense momentum. When Tomei and Whaley are left alone to portray opposite poles in the eternal quest for meaning in a meaningless world, their pain becomes yours. When they're not, their existence becomes painful for different and less profound reasons.

Marie and Bruce
Through May 7
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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