Monday, June 17, 2024

Authenticity: Mary Jane and Strategic Love Play

Rachel McAdams and Susan Pourfar in Mary Jane.

The title character in Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane, currently on Broadway, is the single mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy named Alex who was born with cerebral palsy, lung disease and a number of attendant maladies including a paralyzed vocal cord. Mary Jane (a luminous performance by Rachel McAdams) balances a job as a real estate assistant with caring for Alex in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment – she sleeps on a pull-out couch in what looks to be the only other room – with the help of a series of nurses. Some fall asleep on their shift or complain that she doesn’t provide enough perks, but the one we meet, Sherry (April Mathis), is dedicated and has become a friend. Mary Jane, an outgoing, positive woman, has also made friends with the superintendent, Ruthie (Brenda Wehle), who is fixing the drain in the kitchen sink when the play opens; she likes the people whom she calls on for assistance to know how much she appreciates them. Mary Jane is also generous enough to advise and buck up new mothers who have found themselves on the same strange, terrifying road; we meet one, Brianne (Susan Pourfar), who is making a list under her guidance of the information she needs that the doctors may have neglected to supply, so that she doesn’t have to ferret it out for herself. About halfway through the play, which is performed without an intermission, Alex stops breathing and Mary Jane, Sherry and her college-age niece Amelia (Lily Santiago), a serious, straightforward young woman who turns out to be excellent in a crisis, have to tend to him while waiting for the paramedics to take him to the hospital. In the second half, the action shifts to that location, where everyone calls Mary Jane “Mom” and where Alex has been in residence for nearly two months. Here we meet four other women: Dr. Toros (Matthis), Kat (Santiago), who runs the hospital’s music therapy program; Tenkei (Wehle), a Buddhist chaplain; and Chaya (Pourfar), another mother with a desperately sick child at home.

Mary Jane avoids every trap that a play with this kind of narrative could fall into.  It contains no melodrama or sentimentality; in fact, not one scene looks or sounds like anything I’ve encountered in another play or movie or TV drama. Herzog has refused to shape the work as a parade of misery or as a triumph of the spirit, though it’s impossible to watch it without admiring the protagonist’s resilience and measured optimism. So you never feel you’re being told what to feel, which expands the play’s emotional scope because we feel so many things at the same time. Not just Mary Jane herself but all eight of the supporting characters as well are fully formed and completely distinctive; under Anne Kauffman’s fine direction, the four actresses differentiate them so precisely and sink so easily into them that they’re barely recognizable, if at all, when they show up in the second act in a new set of roles. Herzog based the play in part on her experience with her daughter Frances, who died at eleven of nemaline myopathy, and it has the freshness and the freedom, for lack of a better word, of lived experience. But though Herzog’s experience informs it, it’s her honesty and sensitivity and the sureness of her craft that make it so good.

We fall in love with Mary Jane, we also fall in love with Rachel McAdams, though in truth many of us who have been watching her work since Red Eye and the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows did so long ago. McAdams is a vivid, even vivacious, but her great gift is her profound normalcy; the characters she plays are always in a normal emotional range, even when they are in extremis, as Mary Jane is, or witnesses to extreme distress, like her Boston Globe reporter in Spotlight. Herzog didn’t write big scenes for the character because Mary Jane is the opposite of a scene maker, yet the performance is mesmerizing. The closest she comes to a big scene is part of her interaction with Kat, where Mary Jane finally verbalizes her frustration with the music therapy program. Because of Alex’s bodily issues and his inability to communicate, it’s impossible to tell whether he’s cognitively damaged, but she has always operated under the assumption that he is capable of understanding her. She keeps telling him that someone will be coming to play music for him, yet this is the first time Kat’s schedule or that of her colleague has happened to mesh with Alex’s, and Mary Jane believes that her broken promises to him are causing him disappointment – that rather than benefiting him, the program is in fact causing him harm. Her complaint (in a beautifully written speech) is her single moment of anger and defeat, and McAdams’s authenticity and understatement make it unforgettable.

Archie Backhouse and Letty Thomas in Strategic Love Play. (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Strategic Love Play, in the intimate Soho Theatre, is a two-hander about a young man, Adam (Archie Backhouse), and a young woman, Jenny (Letty Thomas), who meet on the internet and agree to have drinks at a pub. Adam recently broke up with his girlfriend, and the love of his life is his best friend, who is married to someone else; he has imperiled that friendship with a drunken phone call in which he confessed his romantic feelings for her and put down her husband. Jenny has been so embittered by a history of romantic failure and a self-destructive impulse that, true to form, she plants a series of land mines on this first date with Adam. He sticks around for a while out of politeness, but eventually he gives up and walks out, confirming her expectations. But then, unexpectedly, he comes back with two more pints and a package of crisps, and the playwright, Miriam Battye, a talented writer with a finely tuned ear for dialogue, works hard to provide a reason for the turnaround. The two actors are splendid, especially Backhouse, and there’s never a moment in the play’s ninety-minute running time when we aren’t engaged by their depiction of the two characters. But it can’t overcome our sense that when, instead of getting out of an unpleasant encounter with a woman who seems dangerously on the edge of either explosion or implosion while the getting is good, Adam elects to return for more, it has turned into some other play.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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