Tuesday, April 9, 2019

207 (2018-2019): Review: MRS. MURRAY'S MENAGERIE (seen April 8, 2019)

“Not Such a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Not too long ago, my son, a graphic artist, was hired to work with a focus group. It involved ordinary people being paid to spend a few hours around a large table where, addressed and questioned by a leader, they slung ideas about chewing gum packaging.  His job was to quickly sketch their ideas so everyone could immediately see the result. Now that I recall it, his descriptions were amusing enough to form the germ of a play. 
Back to camera: Michael Dalto. L-R: Carmen M, Herlihy, Joe Curnutte, January LaVoy, Brad Heberlee, Stephanie Wright Thompson, Phillip James Brannon, Marc Bovino. Photo: Ben Arons.
With Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, such a play has been created by the Mad Ones, an innovative ensemble that specializes in group creations. The group gained wide attention last year for Miles for Mary, at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Lila Neugebauer. It concerned a committee of high school teachers organizing a charity telethon. In it, the Mad Ones established a unique, fly-on-the-wall perspective on the committee’s often-innocuous comments and behavior. It had an improvised quality that made it both thoroughly naturalistic and, often, hilariously funny.
Stephanie Wright Thompson, Brad Heberlee, Phillip James Brannon. Photo: Ben Arons.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, written by its eight-member cast and director Neugebauer, is getting a spot-on staging from her under the aegis of Ars Nova (where the Mad Ones became “Company-in-Residence” in 2015) at their new Greenwich House venue; unhappily, the play itself is simply spotty. Its focus group has been recruited to discuss the popular TV children’s show that gives the play its title. The show is entering its final season. Presumably to guarantee it exits on a high note, a firm has been enlisted to question a cross-section of parents with preschool kids about their and their children’s reactions to it and its projected spinoffs.
Joe Curnutte, January LaVoy. Photo: Ben Arons.
Greenwich House’s auditorium has been organized by designers You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek so that the audience sits on bleachers surrounding two sides of the acting space, looking at the American Union Community Center, a workmanlike room painted industrial green, in Philadelphia.
Michael Dalto. Photo: Ben Arons.
In its center is a large, round table, with six places noted by cardboard nameplates. An open kitchen area occupies one wall, with steps at one side leading to an overhead room for the focus leaders. Another wall is occupied by the room’s tall, arched windows. The year is 1979, as reflected in the carefully curated hairstyles and costumes (the latter by Ásta Bennie Hostetter)—like the men’s bell-bottoms.
Joe Curnutte. Photo: Ben Arons.
The leader, a suited professional with a clipboard, is Dale (Brad Heberlee). His barely speaking, nerdy assistant is Jim (Marc Bovino), his left arm in a cast and sling that (I’m guessing) looks more like the real thing than faked. Jim’s chief job is to take notes of the discussion and to jot down in chalk on a blackboard the dozens of individual words contributed by the panelists as answers to Dale’s incessant questions. His injured arm, of course, doesn’t make this any easier.
January LaVoy. Photo: Ben Arons.
Like much else in the play, this is initially funny, as Jim’s strenuous writing clicks away furiously, covering every inch with words. Barely any are then referred to before being wiped away to be replaced by new ones, suggesting the utter time-wasting uselessness of the entire operation.

Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie sounds like a close facsimile of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Dale’s questions cover in micro-detail its every feature, including the personality traits of Mrs. Murray, each of the show’s puppet and human characters, and even its music (created for this production by Justin Ellington, with lyrics by actor Michael Dalto).
Carmen M. Herlihy, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto. Photo: Ben Arons.
The panelists are Ernest (Phillip James Brannon), the sole black member; Roger (Joe Curnutte); Wayne (Michael Dalto); June (Carmen M. Herlihy); Celeste (January LaVoy); and Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson). Since we, the audience, know nothing of the fictional TV show other than what we hear mentioned, whatever satirical points are made hold no particular interest for us.
Stephanie Wright Thompson. Photo: Ben Arons.
Dale’s nonstop questioning is supplemented by his asking for raised hands or thumbs up, down, or midway responses. Now and then there’s a brief sense of burgeoning irritation, especially in regard to Roger’s more button-pushing reactions, as when he engages in role playing with Ernest. Mostly, though, every one remains polite and the gathering remains on a more or less even keel.

But even after an hour of this, the dramatic temperature barely rises, there’s a minimum of physical activity, and the same kinds of questions are repeated with variations. All we seem to be waiting for is the next big laugh precipitated by someone’s comical comment or behavior (as when June walks off with a stuffed animal prop). Some people laughed throughout (often for no discernible reason). For others, the humor gradually dissipated as we wondered what the payoff would be.
Marc Bovino, Phillip James Brannon. Photo: Ben Arons.
As a mildly satirical take on the vapidity of such focus groups, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is on target. As a discussion of average parents’ responses to children’s programming, it now and then says something bordering on pertinence, like the section on disciplining a naughty child. However, with so much of it drenched in rapid-fire questions, answers, games, and other focus-group accouterments, with laughter the principal objective, its existence as a gentle spoof becomes a boring one.  

During the closing moments, the group is asked to fill out a questionnaire; Ernest continues at the task even after the others have left, only for him then to do something that, in my view, sums up the theme in a single gesture. By that point, I was ready to do the same for Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie itself.

Greenwich House
46 Barrow St., NYC
Through April 27