By Tulis McCall
First of all the good news. Miles For Mary is a very fine example of what ensemble work is. More than fine, because everybody in the cast wrote this piece. That would be Everybody as in e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y plus the director Lila Neugebauer. The Mad Ones is a collaborative theatre company who originally put this play up at the Bushwick Star, and it is presented here as part of Playwrights Horizons Redux Series. The idea is to seek out promising productions and give them a second showing under Playwrights substantial umbrella. The Mad Ones is an inspire choice.
The time is 1988-89 (padded shoulders and severe hair curls for the ladies). The place is Garrison, Ohio which is exactly next to Nowhere, Ohio. Somehow the local high school hosts a real actual telethon (just the word makes me cringe) titled – you guessed it – Miles For Mary. The Mary in question was a promising student whose life ended too soon. The funds raised go to two scholarships. One for a boy and one for a girl. Who says small towns are small-minded.
The committee for the telethon is in mid stride with the preparations, and we meet them in their meeting room that is detailed in time travel trivia. Hand held phones with an external speaker for conference calls. David, committee head (Michael Dalto) is down his best to diplomatically usher everyone through this meeting of budgets and details that no one wants to discuss because it is boring. Ken (Marc Bovino) and his wife Julie (Stacey Yen) are both quiet focused on the minutiae. Sandra (Stephanie Wright Thompson) is is there because she doesn’t have a lot going on in her life and, what the hey. Rod (Joe Curnutte) is an athletics coach who acts like he knows nothing while he notes everything. Brenda (Amy Staats) is on the speaker phone for most of the duration but her control is clear despite her physical absence. She has had some sort of mishap that has her sidelined, and we never find out exactly what.
We never find out exactly what with most of these characters, and that is just fine. The Mad Ones have molded this piece from collaboration and I assume improv. They have discovered their characters inch by inch. They know who they are and whether we do or not is of no matter. Life is like that. We spend hours with people in work situations and often know nothing about them other than what they bring to the table. While these actors know all about their characters, they have determined that we don’t have to. We are, after all observing. Just the way we do on the street or the subway or the bus. We don’t need all the dots connected for us.
Where this play stumbles is in it’s structure.
We are swept into the lives of these people like so many pieces of lint into a dust pan. They are not extraordinary or wildly special. They are merely unique, each of them, trying to live their lives and not bump into the furniture. Got it. Life is daily and the minutia of it rolls out here with extraordinary detail. About ¾ of the way in, however, we realize that there is no problem on the horizon that will cause these folks to change one molecule of their behavior. We realize, as the team has a meltdown over the new phones that will be part of the telethon fund raising, that this play has rolled to a dead stop. It is such a slow roll, however, that it almost passes by without notice, except for the feeling that the oxygen has disappeared from the room.
This particular scene is the climax, but as I said there is no opposing force to challenge the story line. Rather we see this team stripped to the bone – which is startling in its honesty. Time outs are taken for people to say what they are really feeling. It is the Forum – Ohio style. And it works. Bravo to that. But there is no resolution, no “therefore”, no “Because that happened. this happened. The telethon and its plans proceed with no noticeable input from this team other than the usual. It is nature that makes the call, as it always does.
So kudos for the effort and the skill. These actors are a pleasure to watch. They know their craft as performers. It is the story that needs some attention.
MILES FOR MARY – written by Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Lila Neugebauer and Stephanie Wright Thompson; in collaboration with Sarah Lunnie and the creative ensemble of Amy Staats and Stacey Yen. Director Lila Neugebauer
WITH Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Lila Neugebauer, Amy Staats, Stephanie Wright and Stacey Yen.
Design by Amy Rubin, costume design by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, lighting design by Mike Inwood and sound design by Stowe Nelson.
At Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street). The limited engagement is scheduled through Sunday, February 4.