Saturday, January 27, 2018

149 (2017-2018): Review: MILES FOR MARY (seen January 26, 2018)

“Points of Disorder”

It helps but you don’t have to be or have been a teacher to appreciate the wickedly human humor in Miles for Mary, the often deliciously hilarious comedy about committee work launching the new Redux Series at Off-Broadway’s venerable Playwrights Horizons. Anyone who’s ever served on a committee with a particular project in mind will recognize the behavior, ranging from unfailingly polite to manically frustrated, driving the play’s half-dozen Garrison HS teachers, as they strive to organize the school’s ninth annual, 24-hour, scholarship-funding telethon, named for a student athlete who died in a car crash.
Stephanie Wright Thompson, Marc Bovino, Michael Dalto, Stacey Yen, Joe Curnutte. Photo: Jefferson White.
The Redux Series is designed to revive outstanding Off-Off Broadway shows that, because of Equity showcase rules, would disappear once their limited number of permitted performances (12-16) ends. Playwrights Horizons couldn’t have done better than to select Miles for Mary, a play created by the collaborative group, The Mad Ones, and first seen at Brooklyn’s Bushwick Starr in 2016. Four of its six actors—Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, and Stephanie Wright Thompson—along with director Lila Neugebauer, wrote the script. Dramaturg Sarah Lunnie and actresses Amy Staats and Stacy Yen also contributed, the latter two credited as a “creative ensemble.” 

Amy Rubin’s set replicates in realistic detail the office/lounge of the fictional Garrison, Ohio, school’s Phys Ed Department, dominated at our left by a conference table and at our right by a desk. It’s so reminiscent of the teacher’s lounge in 2016’s Exit Strategy at the Cherry Lane one can imagine both plays being performed in it, with only some minor changes in the props. One that would have to go would be the small, boxy monitor with green text on a black background, helping to establish the time period (1988-1989).
Michael Dalto, Marc Bovino, Stacey Yen, Joe Curnutte, Stephanie Wright Thompson. Photo: Jefferson White.
When the action begins we see five teachers, all in their thirties, at the table: Ken Wyckoff (Bovino); his wife, Julie (Yen); David Eagan (Dalto), who serves as the pro forma leader; Sandra Bulkman (Thompson); and Rod Dietrich (Curnutte). Running the meeting is the unseen Brenda Zadakian (Staats), heard over the table’s speakerphone, unable to attend because of injuries from a serious accident. The situation sets up exactly the kind of comic communication obstacles you’d expect.

Over the course of the play’s intermissionless hour and 55 minutes, we slowly get to know the teachers and to appreciate their individual quirks. For example, the gym teacher, Rod, is always doing something physical, like playing shooting hoops with a toy basketball set or, in a highlight, spinning at top speed on a stationary bike. Or Sandra, who, unlike the others, wears the same clothes every day. (The spot-on costumes are by Àsta Bennie Hostetter.)
Michael Dalto, Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Stephanie Wright Thompson, Stacey Yen. Photo: Jefferson White.
Everyone behaves at first in the most cordial, conciliatory way, picking each other’s brains for ideas and accepting each one offered as potentially valuable, no matter how clueless, and complimenting one another as if they were all bias- and ego-free. Each compliment, of course, covers an underlying dismissal. And the forced collegiality, naturally, only wastes time and delays realization of the project’s goals. Eventually, it’s impossible to resist the tensions that arise as the teachers try to answer the project’s needs.

The play is structured around scenes on specific subjects, each fundamentally convincing but with a patina of satire that becomes increasingly rich, and each serving to illuminate something funny in the group dynamic. These cover budgeting, themes, programming, Christmas gift giving among the members, training in how to handle the new, multi-line phones for the telethon, and what the script calls the "post mort." There’s so much detail, in fact, that it may go too far; if 15 minutes could be carefully extracted it might make an even sharper impact.
Michael Dalto, Stephanie Wright Thompson, Stacey Yen, Joe Curnutte, Marc Bovino. Photo: Jefferson White.
Much as it’s easy to laugh at what we see, it also lets us realize how our own behavior in such circumstances could just as well be thought ridiculous. As I watched, I could feel waves of embarrassment come rushing back on recalling committees where either I or someone else made fools of ourselves on behalf of some long forgotten cause.  
Stacey Yen, Marc Bovino. Photo: Jefferson White.
Miles for Mary begins getting laughs early on; I, however, needed more time to assimilate the circumstances and characters before the humor began to creep under my skin. The approach taken under Neugebauer’s subtle direction suggests the kind of dry, straight-faced comedy you get from the best British comedy. The actors all are perfectly in tune with their roles, taking them seriously and not at all playing for laughs; once you catch on, though, you begin to notice the nuances in their speech and behavior that betray their underlying comic intentions.

There are too many brilliant strokes to enumerate but moments that stand out include the one when Yen’s consistently composed Julie loses it in a nuclear emotional explosion; when Bovino’s Ken is unable to handle the incomprehension and lack of interest in the new phones he’s so excited about explaining; and when Ken complains about everyone’s patronizing attitudes, followed by the group’s decision to see what happens when they tell the truth about their feelings. For all its obvious emphasis on satirical comedy, Miles for Mary also reflects the pathos in Puck's immortal line: “What fools these mortals be.”

Miles for Mary is playing in Playwrights Horizons’ small, upstairs venue, the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. It’s a far more delightful and original work than many of the more superficially prestigious works PH produces on its main stage. Judging by the laughter (frequency as well as volume) it generates, it might be worth someone’s while to pick it up for yet another “redux” production in an independent Off-Broadway run.


Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 18