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Miles for Mary

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - January 22, 2018

The Cast
Photo provided by The Mad Ones

The more you like being in a crowded teachers' lounge in the middle of Ohio, the more you'll like Miles for Mary. The play, by and mostly starring The Mad Ones, has turned up at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater after a healthy run a little over a year ago in Bushwick, where the Playwrights Horizons brass dutifully trekked out to see it. They must have been impressed. What I see is a slender premise, funny in spots and consistently well-played, but stretched out beyond its comfort zone, to almost two intermissionless hours, and lacking a certain . . . eccentricity that might light a fire under it. The Mad Ones ought to work at getting a little madder.

For what's on stage here is a bloated ensemble effort, wherein six faculty members actively listen to one another, squabble, define each other's responses, squabble some more, subtly undermine one another, are brought to various breaking points, and keep the palaver going well beyond its sell-by date. It's the 1988-89 school year, perhaps because that allows The Mad Ones to model Asta Bennie Hostetter's amusing parade of unfortunate late-1980s fashion, and because that time period allows them to avoid the complications that yet-unborn social media would trigger. The most sophisticated technology is the telephone, and the five teachers spending so many hours here are on it a lot, mostly with Brenda (Amy Staats) on the line, who finally makes an appearance. She's recuperating, from what we're not sure, and that means she can only interact remotely with the other five, who are busy planning their ninth annual Miles for Mary telethon.

Who's Mary? Some local teen who died in a car accident years ago and inspired all the fund-raising, which goes toward an athletic scholarship in her name. So the meetings are in the phys ed lounge (designed with impressive clutter by Amy Rubin—exercycle, stacked chairs, basketball hoop, more detail than you'll take in), and most of the committee has a jock mentality. The acting chair, David (Michael Dalto), is a wrestling coach and history teacher, a talkative peacemaker struggling to rein in the troops' petty jealousies and push the agenda forward. Sandra (Stephanie Wright Thompson) coaches track, is self-conscious about being single, and dispenses encouragement to her peers even when it isn't needed, or meant. Ken (Marc Bovino) is the non-jock, an easily wounded AV nerd who's not that good at AV. He's married to Julie (Stacey Yen), new to the committee, who makes lists and may be less than Ken's ideal mate. Rod (Joe Curnutte) is younger, an alpha-male track and wrestling coach who bloviates and mutters apologies when he isn't really sorry.

Does it sound like an arresting crew? They're average, very average, and they make small talk, very small. The Mad Ones' close acting-writing collaboration shows (though Staats and Yen aren't members), with keenly timed, almost Albee-like repetition and interruption ("I'm not lying. I'm not lying. I . . . it's not a lie"), and the dialogue's so prosaic that you may feel you've wandered into an actual Midwestern high school.

But how compelling is the conversation? The teachers discuss what the concept should be for this year's telethon, and what's the difference between a concept and a theme; exchange Secret Santa gifts; get trained on the new phone system, causing Ken a near-breakdown; curse, and drop frequent quarters into the swear box; and explain one another's reactions, in 1980s pop-psychspeak. They tread lightly on each other's emotions, then stick the knives in, then circle back and offer insincere encouragement. And somewhere along the way—maybe by the April meeting, where Ken is trying to explain the difference between regular hold, exclusive hold, and intercom—you realize that The Mad Ones, besides spending undue time on trivial matters, are being a little condescending to this bunch. The teachers' problems are real, if relatively insignificant on a cosmic scale, and they get caught up in convincing human conflict. But The Mad Ones seem to be snickering at them a bit, saying, Ha-ha, we're smarter than you guys.

Lila Neugebauer, also a Mad One, directs the intricate interplay persuasively, and the actors fit comfortably into the faculty's insecure skins—Bovino's Ken, especially, is a symphony of pettiness and self-doubt. The timing and reactions provide a laugh or two, and many around me seemed to be enjoying the proceedings more than I was. Maybe they're teachers, or businesspeople overburdened by slow-moving meetings, and Miles for Mary strikes gratifyingly close to home for them, all that small-bore quarreling and false support. Some of us would rather be elsewhere.

Miles for Mary
Through February 18
Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral