Review: Mary (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Unflinching comedy makes you flinch

     
     

(l to r) James (Scott Jaeck), David (Alex Weisman), Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) and Dolores (Barbara Garrick) sit down to a family dinner while Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) tends to them in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
  
Mary
  
Written by Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by May Adrales
at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $15-$32  |  more info 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

In his short time as a professional playwright, Thomas Bradshaw has developed a reputation as one of the foremost provocateurs in the theatre. And after having seen the Goodman Theatre’s production of Mary, it’s a title that is well deserved.

Bradshaw obviously is not one to shy away from such controversial topics as homosexuality, race relations, religion and AIDS, all of which he tackles in the exceedingly dark comedy. But he also is able to deal with these subjects in a way that isn’t sensational. His handling may be over-the-top, taking notions of racism, for example, to absurd heights in order to comically portray the realities of racial inequality. But he never loses sight of the point he is trying to make. In other words, the material isn’t shocking merely to be shocking.

College sweethearts (l to r) Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) and David (Alex Weisman) embrace as they get ready to leave school for winter break in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren.Mary begins in the year 1983. A collegiate gay couple, David (Alex Weisman) and Jonathan (Eddie Bennett), are preparing for the holidays. When David asks if Jonathan would like to spend the Christmas season with his family, Jonathan apprehensively agrees. The two decide to hide their sexuality from the parents, insisting instead they are just really good buddies.

To say David’s family is unusual is an understatement. His extraordinarily over-the-top WASPy parents (played by Barbara Garrick and Scott Jaeck) keep a black maid on hand who they endearingly refer to as Nigger Mary. Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) embodies the mammy caricature, that portly maternal good-natured but simple black woman that has permeated white representations of blacks for decades. She is subservient with a smile and treated as a member of the family.

Jonathan is our fish-out-of-water in this scenario, and so we view David’s bizarre family dynamic through his eyes. Of course, seeing a black woman who is affectionately referred to as a nigger and who lives in a cabin on the property doesn’t sit well with Jonathan. And so he urges David to convince his parents to make some changes. David eventually confronts his mother, pleading with her to send Mary to community college so that she may learn to read.

Meanwhile, Mary and her husband Elroy are uncomfortable with David’s obvious homosexuality. The notion of two men engaging in a sexual relationship goes against their strong Christian roots. And so Mary vows to do God’s work and instructs Elroy to shoot Jonathan in the crotch with a BB gun.

     
Dolores (Barbara Garrick) surprises her husband James (Scott Jaeck) with an early Christmas present in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary.  Photo by Liz Lauren. Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) recites the Biblical story of Lot to her husband Elroy (Cedric Young) in Thomas Bradshaw’s 'Mary'.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

It certainly sounds like we’re venturing into sitcom territory here. And that seems to be Bradshaw’s intention. But I can assure you that the play does not end on a hearty laugh and a freeze frame. In fact, the ending is quite possibly one of the most unsettling endings to any play I have ever seen. Without giving too much away, Bradshaw in essence pulls the rug out from under the audience, delivering a big "Fuck you!" It’s both ingenious and sadistic.

My problem is that, although I think the ending is a brilliant concept, it feels like the punch line to a very long sketch. It’s a little glib; a little out of left field. It doesn’t entirely make sense when you really sit and think about the characters and the journey they have undergone. And so as much as I really do appreciate the ending as a conceit, I can’t say it was necessarily good playwriting. Myra Lucretia Taylor, as Nigger Mary, struggles with her relationship with the Jennings family in Thomas Bradshaw's 'Mary'. Photo by Liz Lauren.It just makes too big of a leap in logic in order to express how religion and good intentions can send people on misguided missions.

Kudos to the actors, all of whom hold their own in this topsy-turvy play. Weisman and Bennett are good at playing up the puppy love of their relationship, while Bennett scores big laughs with his nimble prancing and shocked facial expressions. Meanwhile, Taylor is incredibly likeable as Mary, even when her character is scheming to shoot a man in the testicles. This likeability makes the play’s conclusion that much more revolting.

May Adrales‘ direction is adept. She keeps the play in motion constantly, giving little time for pause between scenes. It’s exceptional pacing that makes this 90-minute one act breeze by.

The accolades that Bradshaw has received have been earned. Mary really is a thought-provoking and important piece of theatre. I just wish Bradshaw could have found a way to draft his ending so that it wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the characters. Still, the point is made. Just don’t expect to leave the Goodman feeling uplifted.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

(l to r) David (Alex Weisman) plays his new violin for his mother Dolores (Barbara Garrick), his father James (Scott Jaeck), Elroy (Cedric Young) and Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) in Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary. Photo by Liz Lauren

All photos by Liz Lauren

         
           

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Goodman Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

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It’s "The Best of All Possible"! Artistic Director Robert Falls announces Goodman Theatre’s initial five-play line-up, including two reimagined classics and three world-premiere productions (two of which are Goodman commissions) that define the theater’s new 2010/2011 season; three plays are still to be announced. The new season marks the Goodman’s 10th in its home at 170 N. Dearborn and anchor of Chicago’s revitalized North Loop Theatre District—and its 85th year as the city’s largest not-for-profit producing theater.

Highlights:

  • Mary Zimmerman reimagines Bernstein’s Candide in a major fall musical event
  • Robert Falls re-exmines Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull
  • New works by Sarah Ruhl 
  • Major new revival of the musical masterpiece Candide by Leonard Bernstein and Hugh Wheeler

Says Artistic Director Robert Falls:

"Our 2010/2011 season showcases the artistic breadth and variety for which the Goodman is noted, and the quality and diversity that our state-of-the-art facility has helped us achieve over the past ten years in this incredible new home. I am particularly pleased to welcome back three of my favorite collaborators—Manilow Resident Director Mary Zimmerman, Artistic Associate Regina Taylor, and playwright Sarah Ruhl—and excited to welcome Thomas Bradshaw to the Goodman for the first time."

 

The 2010-2011 Goodman Theatre Season

  Candide
  September and October, 2010 (Albert Theatre)
  Directed and adapted by Mary Zimmerman
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hugh Wheeler
New adaptation by Mary Zimmerman
  Tony Award and MacArthur "Genius" Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s breathtaking new production of Candide is the theatrical event of the season. In addition to the music of Leonard Bernstein, Candide features contributions from the greatest lyricists of the 20th century, from Richard Wilbur to Stephen Sondheim. In this racy musical satire, naive Candide is banished for romancing the Baron’s daughter, only to be plagued by a series of absurd hardships that challenge his optimistic outlook of life and love.
   
  The Seagull
  October and November, 2010 (Owen Theatre)
  by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Robert Falls
  Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls directs an intimate new production of Chekhov’s masterwork The Seagull, whose unforgettable characters reveal the passion and pathos of everyday life. When famed actress Irina visits her family with her young lover Trigorin in tow, they become ensnared in a tragicomic tangle of romance, intrigue and unrequited love. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to experience a 20th century masterpiece, interpreted by one of America’s outstanding directors—in the Owen Theatre.

   
  Rain
  January and February, 2011 (Albert Theatre)
  by Regina Taylor
A World Premier
  Rain is Regina Taylor‘s most personal and intimate work to date. Fiercely independent Iris has made a successful life for herself as a journalist in New York City, but when her marriage fails, she begins to unravel. In search of solace, Iris returns to her mother’s house in Texas, but her homecoming proves more confounding than consoling when her mother makes a shocking announcement. As long-buried family secrets come to light, Iris must face her past and make some difficult decisions about the future.
   
  Mary
  February and March, 2011 (Owen Theatre)
  by Thomas Bradshaw 
Directed by May Adrales
A World Premiere
  Outrageous. Ruthless. Explosive. Named "Best Provocative Playwright" by The Village Voice, Thomas Bradshaw pulls no punches in his comic absurdist drama Mary. At the height of what Time magazine dubbed "AIDS hysteria" in 1983, college student David invites his boyfriend home to his parents’ house in Virginia where nothing has changed since the 1800s—including the slave quarters. Confronting hypocrisy and oppression with exhilarating wit, Bradshaw’s incendiary work is "likely to leave you speechless!" (The New York Times).
   
  Stage Kiss
  March and April, 2011 (Albert Theatre)
  by Sarah Ruhl 
A World Premiere Goodman Theatre commission
  In this quirky new comedy by MacArthur "Genius" Award-winner Sarah Ruhl, art imitates life—or is it the other way around? When ex-lovers HE and SHE are thrown together as romantic leads in an outrageously dreadful melodrama, they quickly lose touch with reality as the story onstage begins to follow them offstage. Stage Kiss is a hilarious, off-beat fairy-tale about what happens when lovers share a stage kiss-or when actors share a real one.

An Opening Benefit launches the milestone season on Monday, September 27 at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing—the location of the theater’s former home of 75 years. Honored will be those who paved the way for the new Goodman and made possible its myriad artistic, economic and community engagement achievements over the past decade. The evening will culminate with a performance of Candide. For tickets and more information about the Season Opening Benefit, call 312.443.5564. This will be the first in a season-long series of commemorative happenings.

Upcoming productions in the 2009/2010 Season include:  the world premiere of the Goodman commissioned A True History of the Johnstown Flood by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls (March 13 – April 18, 2010 in the Albert); The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Chuck Smith (May 1 – June 6, 2010 in the Albert); and The Sins of Sor Juana by Karen Zacarías, directed by Henry Godinez (June 19 – July 25, 2010 in the Albert) which launches the Goodman’s 5th Latino Theater Festival.

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